NORMAN — This odd phenomenon of good players going bad — rather, talented cornerbacks suddenly unable to cover anyone and being replaced by freshmen — is both troubling and somewhat refreshing.
The latest example continued on Saturday night in Oklahoma’s 38-20 victory over TCU.
Many figured the struggling Sooner secondary might suddenly turn middling Horned Frog quarterback Kenny Hill into Tom Brady.
Instead, the Sooners started three true freshman defensive backs, and Kenny Hill looked more like Benny Hill.
After quality debuts the previous week at Oklahoma State — and holding up just fine against the high-powered Cowboys — Tre Brown and Tre Norwood replaced Jordan Thomas and Parnell Motley at corner for the Sooners against TCU, and both were very good. Robert Barnes also started at safety in place of Will Johnson (suspended for the first half for a targeting penalty) and Kahlil Haughton (injured the previous game) and did well.
“I thought the freshmen really did an outstanding job being put in this situation, and really competed,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said after the game. “It’s a very uncomfortable situation playing four true freshmen. I don’t know if it’s ever been done here at Oklahoma. But you know, that’s the position we were in. We thought it was the best thing for our team and we did it. Proud of those guys. Tough position to be in but I thought they competed well.”
Hill passed for 270 yards but completed only 13-of-28 throws. He hit strikes of 62, 50, 41 and 40 yards, but on his other 24 attempts netted just 77 yards.
Including middle linebacker Kenneth Murray, who has started every game this season, the Sooners opened with four true freshmen on defense.
“Really, really proud of our defense,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “Thought they fought and played well all night with a lot of freshmen in the game, especially the back end. Those guys clearly held up very well against probably the best skill group we’ve seen this year.”
In limited action in Stillwater, Norwood actually led the Sooners with seven tackles. Unencumbered by expectations, he simply went out and made plays.
Against TCU, Norwood made a tackle and broke up two passes, while Brown made three tackles and broke up one pass. And at safety, Barnes made four tackles.
Stoops said he decided early last week that the rookies would start, and he tried not to make a big deal out of it. He also said he didn’t do much to simplify things for them, other than continuing the recent trend of giving them coverage help with more of an umbrella package.
“Just let ‘em play and not put too much pressure on ‘em,” Stoops said. “Do what you’re coached to do.”
“We had to kind of make some decisions there,” Riley said, “but we decided to give the young guys a go and they never gave us a reason to take them out. They tackled well, they were competitive, several PBUs. Even some of the catches they made were pretty well contested.”
Stoops also admitted he may have lost sleep last week knowing he would be starting four true freshmen against the No. 6-ranked team in the country.
“I haven’t slept in six straight weeks, what do you mean this week? C’mon,” Stoops said. “No, it’s been a very uncomfortable situation for all of us. Again, you just gotta find some answers. I was proud of what those kids did for us.”
Stoops probably hasn’t slept much during the season since returning to coordinate the OU defense in 2013. The Sooners’ total defense ranking dropped from 20th nationally in 2013 (350 yards per game) to 51st in 2014 (383), upticked to 39th in 2015 (364), then plunged to 82 last year (432) and is 85th this year (414).
TCU did manage 424 total yards, but with the way Oklahoma’s offense hummed in the first half (OU led 38-14 at halftime), the Horned Frogs couldn’t keep up and were never a threat to win the game.
“We needed something good,” Stoops said. “We needed to play more consistently for our own psyche — for my psyche. I mean, it’s important.”
Psyches can be fragile at Oklahoma, where the oddity of fading corners goes back to Zack Sanchez. When he was a redshirt freshman in 2013, Stoops’ first season back in Norman, Sanchez’ abilities shined. But as he got older and gained experience, Sanchez struggled more and more in coverage.
Current senior Jordan Thomas was a fabulous freshman and even better as a sophomore, a more effective defender of the deep ball in 2014 and 2015 than Sanchez was as a second- and third-year starter. But as Thomas has continued to play in games, his coverage proficiency has diminished. He injured a knee last week at OSU and was replaced by Norwood, though the move probably already was in motion before the injury.
The same thing seems to have happened this season to sophomore Parnell Motley. Once the Sooners’ best and most confident cover man, he was benched last week after giving up repeated pass completions, and finally was replaced by Brown.
Is it the complexity of the Oklahoma defense that clouds players’ minds the more they play? Is it too much thinking, not enough reacting? Is it the freedom of youth and the burden of experience?
Or is it the nature of playing corner in the Big 12 Conference, trying in vain to stand resolute against wave after wave of explosive offenses, eroding good players’ confidence like the ocean erodes the shore?
Whatever it is, Stoops made one thing painfully clear: the future is now, and he’s moving on from Thomas and Motley.
“They’ve had plenty of opportunities, and we’ve stuck by ‘em through thick and thin,” Stoops said. “There comes a time you’ve got to do something, so, it is what it is.
“You’ve got to have players to make plays. That’s the business we’re in.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.