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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Mike Stoops and the Benefit of the Doubt

Last year, Bob’s brother fielded the conference’s top unit. Are Mike’s days numbered in Norman?

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Stoops’s second stint as OU’s defensive coordinator has been tumultuous, to say the least. Sooners fans were understandably exasperated when Mike came back after the 2014 season—sure, fire Heupel, they said, but wasn’t Mike also part of the problem? A pretty big part? Memories of sideline arguments and non-adjustments, especially from the blowout Baylor loss, were fresh in everyone’s mind.

Then somehow, last year, Mike had the best unit in the Big 12. Playmakers like Zack Sanchez, Eric Striker, Dominique Alexander and Charles Tapper took their games to the next level and helped Oklahoma hold teams to just 22 points and 364.5 yards per game.

Now, all those guys are gone and Mike has struggled to replicate their production. OU has fallen in the rankings from 29 to 109 in points per game allowed, giving up an average of 36.2 and 428.4 yards so far. The regression has been stark, glaring and, to many Sooners fans, unacceptable.

Is Mike the victim of a talent drain and a tough schedule? Or is it time for Bob to bite the bullet and dispatch with his brother once and for all?

In looking back through the last two games, two things are undeniably true about Mike’s defense: 1) It’s putting together some pretty good stretches for the first time all year, and 2) some of its problems are definitely preparedness—that is, coaching—related.

In the TCU game, Mike was working without Matt Dimon and Tay Evans, but the beleaguered Sooner secondary was more or less intact. On a 2nd-and-3 play in the first quarter, coming off a 7-yard Kyle Hicks run to the TCU 44, the Horned Frogs caught OU totally off guard by lining up quickly in a trick formation with six wideouts (three bunched wide on both sides of the formation) and snapping the ball before Oklahoma was even remotely set. Steven Parker and Kahlil Haughton sprinted to help Michiah Quick cover the weakside receivers—predictably, this ended in disaster and Taj Williams went uncovered down the sideline, missing the end zone only because he tumbled over at the 15 making the catch.

Later in the same quarter, OU caught TCU in a 3rd-and-10 after two incompletions at the TCU 39. Mike put five guys at the line of scrimmage but only rushed four of them, backing up Obo Okoronkwo to protect the right flat. He gave the Horned Frogs receivers his customary eight-yard cushion, while Ahmad Thomas lined up ten yards off Williams in the slot. Sure enough, when the OU secondary backpedaled at the snap, Kenny Hill simply dropped the ball off to Hicks four yards downfield. Thomas was the only guy within five yards—he whiffed his tackle after closing fast. Then Obo missed, coming from the other side. Then Hicks reversed field on Dakota Austin. The Sooners turned around and watched him score, a 61-yard touchdown on a 4-yard pass.

Both these plays are emblematic of Mike’s recurring issues. Teams watching Oklahoma on film discover quickly that his defense can be caught off guard pretty easily—a trick play, some tempo, a little pre-snap motion. That’s all it takes to bust a big play against these guys.

I might understand this a little better if Mike was missing, say, Jordan Evans, Jordan Thomas or a safety. But the fact is, OU’s most experienced defenders are generally healthy and on the field. It’s not like Kahlil Haughton or Emmanuel Beal is out there relaying play calls. Steven Parker, for one, shouldn’t be having issues lining up.

The second play I mentioned sounds like 2014 all over again. How many times does Mike have to watch this movie? On the one hand, I get it—even Jordan Thomas is getting burned one-on-one these days, so why jam the line of scrimmage against receivers who can run past you?

But ten yards, Mike?

Not to mention the tackling. After poor tackling against Houston and Ohio State, Mike had to be preaching aggression and physicality against TCU. Which is all well and good, until your guys start flying past shifty running backs because they’re trying to lay a hit. OU never seems to find a happy medium here—either they’re letting guys slip through their noncommittal arm tackles or they’re trying to level dudes who are too slippery for a shoulders-only lunge.

(My personal theory on this, which is based on absolutely nothing but anecdotal evidence and personal speculation, is that OU’s trainers are treating head injuries slightly more cautiously than other teams—which, honestly, they should be applauded for, if true. Mike knows that he’ll lose guys for weeks to concussion protocol if he gets them hurt in practice, so OU doesn’t do as much live tackling as other squads. The inexperience shows up on Saturdays, and would certainly explain some of the Houston performance.)

The defense’s best moments lately, like the middle quarters against TCU and the first half against Texas, have generally had a few things in common. When Mike pressures the quarterback with five or six rushers, it’s actually helping the secondary as well—most of OU’s pass breakups against TCU came on plays where Hill was under fire, delivering the ball faster and less accurately than he otherwise could have.

Also, there are a handful of players—Kapri Doucet, Caleb Kelly and Neville Gallimore come to mind—who have made a compelling case for more playing time with their Big 12 performance so far. Doucet has shown a great motor during his snaps, making several tackles by running around defensive ends to stop running backs at the line of scrimmage and pressuring QBs. Kelly looks like he’s ready for an extended look to see if he can become part of the main linebacker rotation. And Gallimore might already be the most physical, imposing D-lineman the Sooners have.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Mike Stoops era end after this season, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see it continue, either. Mike is dealing with lots of departed talent and a string of injuries this year and, with the exception of the Houston debacle, OU has won the games it was supposed to.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Mike coaching the next national championship—or even the next Playoff-bound—Sooners defense. He has proven himself a pretty stubborn coordinator, which is great when it’s working and maddening when it’s not. Mike’s unwillingness to bring more consistent pressure, utilize young talent and pressure receivers at the line of scrimmage may prove his undoing at OU.

But if the Sooners keep winning Big 12 shootouts, Bob may feel little inclination for a change.