NORMAN, Okla. — It’s late in the season, but Oklahoma safety Steven Parker figures he’ll be mentoring this week like it’s the first day of practice.
The fifth-ranked Sooners (8-1, 5-1 Big 12) face No. 6 TCU (8-1, 5-1) on Saturday. Parker is the only seasoned starter who is more than penciled in as a starter.
Depending on how practices and therapy sessions break this week, the Sooners could surround Parker with three freshmen Saturday.
“It’s going to be very important as a safety and as a leader on this team, I have to open my mouth up and be able to talk to everybody on the field,” Parker said. “That’s lining the corners up, lining up any safety’ … I just have to be sure I’m the captain of the defense and leader of the backend.”
Here’s the situation Oklahoma is in: free safety Will Johnson will miss the first half due to a targeting suspension from the Oklahoma State game; cornerbacks Jordan Thomas and Parnell Motley who started the first nine games may or may not play. Neither played well against the Cowboys. Thomas left the game with an injury. Motley was benched in the second quarter.
Freshman cornerbacks Tre Brown and Tre Norwood could start against the Horned Frogs. Based on the way both played against Oklahoma State, that looks like an upgrade.
“It gives you a confidence boost,” Norwood said after the Oklahoma State game, “but I just feel like I have to remain humble and continue to work hard.”
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley ruled junior safety Kahlil Haughton out for the TCU game due to an injury. Freshman Robert Barnes, who made the interception to end the Bedlam game, likely starts against the Horned Frogs.
The Sooners declined to make any of the freshmen available for interviews this week. But the coaching staff and teammates expressed full support in the potential youth movement.
“Those guys compete,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said.
Cornerback spots are wide open
The defensive plan entering the season was for Thomas, Motley and sophomore Jordan Parker to alternate at the two cornerback spots. Parker suffered a season-ending knee injury in August, junking the early plan.
No matter what Brown, Norwood or freshman Justin Broiles did in the early season, it’s tough to move freshmen into critical spots.
But the play of Thomas and Motley doesn’t warrant unchallenged status. The Bedlam game was another where Oklahoma’s defense was torched deep repeatedly.
“You miss that competition. That was something that we were really counting on coming into this year – having at least at the top Motley, JT and Jordan Parker, all really good players who have played a bunch with only two being on the field,” Riley said.
Brown and Norwood handled the situation against Oklahoma State. They made tackles. Brown even had 2 interceptions that were negated by penalties.
“We’re going to have great competition at those spots this week, Riley said. “I think those guys gained some confidence from how they played. I think our other guys will be hungry to play better. That’s what you want. Competition.”
Competition is the Sooners’ defensive issue
Riley pointed out the difference between Oklahoma’s offense, which is considered the best unit in college football, and the defense, which is No. 87 in the FBS in total defense.
The Sooners rotate three running backs. It rotates interior offensive line spots. Wide receivers move in and out of the game on nearly every play.
The depth can change on one play. The coaching staff benched sophomore running back Abdul Adams twice this season for fumbling. The same thing happened to wide receivers Marquise Brown and Jeff Badet.
Letting a wide receiver get behind you in a conservative coverage call, is as bad as a turnover. The Sooners’ offensive depth allows the coaching staff to use the bench as a motivator. It’s different on defense.
“We hoped that spot could kind of be like we have on the offensive line right now with the competition so good that if one of them isn’t on their A game, [offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh] grabs them and tosses them out and we throw the next guy in,” Riley said. “I think it’s been a factor and that’s something that we’re looking to continue to build in recruiting because we want to build that type of depth across the board.”
The Sooners don’t have it yet, but that depth on defense is going to get a test Saturday in a must-win game to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive.
Injuries and inconsistent play left them no choice.
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