OU defense looks to turn corner

OU's Charles Tapper, Geneo Grissom

OU's defense is not the question mark for the Sooners in 2014. With nine starters returning, this could be a magical season for Mike Stoops' troops.

It was the last play on defense Oklahoma made, and it's still resonating nearly three months later. With Alabama looking to make a game-tying drive in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the threat was thwarted before it could start.

Quarterback A.J. McCarron was sacked and stripped by OU linebacker Eric Striker, defensive lineman Geneo Grissom recovered the fumble and made an incredible stretch for the end zone.

Case closed. It's the play that epitomized OU's 45-31 upset victory. The final play, and the one that OU fans everywhere hope catapults the group to even more success in 2014.

Entering the 2013 season, the biggest question was with the defense. Across the board there were issues. A defensive line that no proven starters. Linebackers who had no idea what their role would be after a tumultuous 2012 season. The search for a cornerback opposite Aaron Colvin and safety opposite Gabe Lynn.

One by one, the questions were answered. It all culminated on that January night in New Orleans in front of a national audience.

"I just think, as a team, things started to come together," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "We get confidence from our offense. Scoring points gives us confidence to be more aggressive on defense. It all works together. I thought our team came together in that last game."

There was no guarantee it was going to happen that way. Each phase of the defense had to overcome a big obstacle. The defensive line was without its force in the middle with the back injury to Jordan Phillips.

The linebackers had to count on a true freshman in Dominique Alexander when the heart of the group, Corey Nelson, tore his pectoral muscle in October.

Colvin was a leader on and off the field even if he never exactly was 100 percent on the field throughout his senior season.

Young players had to step up. They did, again and again. Now it's that experience those guys can lean on heading into the 2014 season.

"Hopefully, when we're in big games, they'll know the feeling of being in and competing at a very high level against one of the best opponents in college football," Stoops said. "You want to be in those games, and I think the younger players will gain confidence just from the whole experience."

It didn't necessarily even have to be injuries to be an obstacle. For some, like defensive end Charles Tapper, the question was whether or not he was going to make that leap from being a young guy to being a consistent starter.

Tapper routinely made jaw-dropping plays with speed and his athleticism. Now he realizes what's expected of the group going forward.

"We understand the game more," Tapper said. "The coaches can trust us more to learn more tendencies of the offensive line and adjust with what the offense is doing."

Questions remain the secondary as OU tries to replace Colvin and Lynn. But in the other areas, not so much. The Sooners are returning nine defensive starters from last season and return a healthy dose of players that contributed valuable time last season.

One man goes down, there won't be a nervous energy about the next man up. But it's all about doing it on a consistent basis.

"It's a really solid group of players," Stoops said. "I think they understand how good they can be. Now are they willing to work every day to become that unit? That is where we're at.

"This is a group. They're very close. They work hard. They like each other, and it seems they like their coaches, too."

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