If you’ve followed the Oklahoma Sooners at all in the last decade, you know that the ultra-loyal head coach’s staff turns over about as often Mack Brown turns down a TV interview. A spot in Stoops’ inner-circle is like a Supreme Court appointment – you’re in until you die or quit.
When defensive ends coach Chris Wilson accepted an offer to join Dan Mullen’s staff in Starkville this offseason, few OU aficionados would’ve pegged deposed Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez as the likely candidate to fill the rare opening in Norman. A guy who just shepherded the ‘Dawgs defense through two truly awful seasons? Um, sure.
Personally, I think it’s just what the Sooner D needs.
I have never bought into the “Curse of Mike Stoops.” Yet, after Bob’s brother left for the desert at the end of the 2003 season, I do think the Sooner secondary lost some of its edge. Once Bobby Jack Wright started overseeing the defensive backs, it seemed like the quality of play deteriorated – more blown assignments, poor tackling, sometimes too physical, other times not physical enough.
The numbers bear out the decline, as opponents consistently gained more yards per passing attempt after Mike left:
Player development appears to have tailed off as well; the Sooners haven’t seen a defensive back go in the first round since 2003.
Enter Martinez, who will take over the secondary as Wright shifts back to coaching ends.
(Consider that OU was initially looking for someone to coach defensive ends. In other words, Stoops thought enough of Martinez to re-assign Wright and create a spot for him.)
As happy as Georgia fans may be to have rid themselves of Martinez the coordinator, you won’t find many who don’t consider him an outstanding defensive backs coach. His prowess has shown up on the field, too, where the list of UGa DBs who have gone on to the big leagues and garnered national accolades is long and distinguished.
So, Martinez should breathe new life into a secondary that may be in need of a little resuscitation.
Gone are Brian Jackson and Dom Franks, both multi-year starters at cornerback. Diminutive Demontre Hurst has the “field” corner job essentially wrapped up. Despite standing just 5-9, the scrappy sophomore grabbed the coaching staff’s attention last season as a standout on special teams and sub on passing downs.
Fearsome senior Quinton Carter, a second-team all-Big 12 pick in ’09, is another definite. The senior headhunter has already collected plenty of scalps for the Sooners – case in point, Jeremy Maclin – and more should be coming this season.
Now it gets interesting.
At the “boundary” corner position, rumblings from camp have veteran Jamell Fleming in the lead for the gig. The big question surrounding Fleming among OU fans: Why have we heard so little about him up until now? The junior has seen the field on special teams and mop-up duty, but he has never really been talked about as an up-and-comer.
While the optimists may note that Fleming was stuck behind two standouts the past couple seasons, the fact that Fleming hasn’t forced his way onto the field until now is a little worrisome. (Then again, the same could have been said about Jackson prior to ’08.)
Star cover man Jonathan Nelson gives Martinez a little flexibility should he decide to go another direction on the boundary. Currently, Nelson is penciled in as one of the starters at safety. Either way, the coaching staff and NFL scouts love what they’ve seen from the fifth-year senior, so count on Nelson being on the field in just about any set coordinator Brent Venables dials up.
If one of those guys – I’m looking at you, Jefferson – really wows Martinez in the next couple weeks, he and Stoops may call an audible and make Nelson a full-time corner. Even if they stick with Nelson as the starting safety, one player out of that bunch will get the call in nickel and dime packages.
The big test for the 2010 version of the OU secondary will come early when the Sooners face the Florida State Seminoles’ high-octane passing game, led by hyped Heisman candidate Christian Ponder. It won’t end with FSU; OU plays in the pass-happy Big 12, after all.
In Willie Stoops trusts. Hopefully, OU fans will feel the same at the end of the year.