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August 7, 2011Stacy McGee has already heard the whispers, even from his own coaching staff. The whispers turned into questions on Saturday during OU's media day inside the Red Room where he lounged back in his chair.
Could the defensive tackle position be the downfall of Oklahoma's 2011 defense?
"I guess you could say it's one of the big things we have on the team," said McGee. "They say the defensive tackles are supposed to be the weak link of our defense. It's really motivation for us to work harder and prove them wrong."
Last season, Oklahoma struggled stopping the run early in the season. Air Force rushed for 353 yards against the Sooners. Cincinnati's Isiah Pead ran wild against OU picking up 169 yards on just 21 carries. The Bearcats' team piled up 305 rushing yards total as OU barely escaped from Cincinnati with a 31-29 victory.
Then Oklahoma went into Columbia, Mo., ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. Blaine Gabbert faced a non-existent pass rush from the Sooners as he carved apart the OU defense.
Oklahoma lost the game, along with their ranking.
"We need to learn how to stop the run. That's the number one thing," said McGee of last year's struggles. "We have to play more with technique. That was the big thing with last year is that we weren't playing with technique. We were out there playing but we weren't playing with the little keys that we should."
The hope of McGee, the OU staff and Sooner fans every where, is that injuries were partly responsible for last season's struggles.
Starting DT Casey Walker missed most of the season with a sprained knee suffered against Cincinnati. Torrea Peterson, a true freshmen in 2010 who defensive tackles coach Jackie Shipp tabbed as a potential difference maker, was sidelined most of the season with nagging injuries as well.
Heading into this season, Daniel Noble, a true freshmen who saw significant playing time in 2010, had to give up football due to concussion issues.
So that leaves the Sooners with McGee, Walker, Jamarkus McFarland, Peterson and a host of youngsters to compete for playing time.
But with Walker and Peterson healthy in 2011, the line should be considerably better.
"Casey is an explosive player. I feel like he would have surprised some people last year but he got injured," said McGee. "If we have everybody healthy, you can get a rotation going so every time somebody gets on the field they're playing fresh instead of playing tired the whole game."
The doubters won't stop doubting until they see improvement in the run defense this season. But those doubts will only feed the defensive tackle position to be motivated heading into the season opener.
"We put pressure on ourselves because we know it starts with us," said McGee.
STEPPING UP FOR JONES
Daryl Williams continues to work in practices as the starting right tackle to replace rehabbing starter, Jarvis Jones while he still recovers from a torn patella tendon suffered last spring.
"I'm very encouraged right now. Daryl has really stepped up his game," said starting center Ben Habern. "We've had three days of practice and he's been playing really well.
"Jarvis is doing everything he can to get back on the field. Everybody understands rehab and all that kind of stuff. When Jarvis is ready I'm sure he'll get a chance and help us. In his absence we need somebody to step in at right tackle and Daryl's been doing a great job."
Williams emergence at right tackle is a little bit of a direction change from last spring. The Sooners were set to go with returning backup Josh Aladenoye, but Williams talent just can't be denied.
He could be the future at left tackle following the depature of Donald Stephenson following the 2011 season.
Stephenson's thoughts right now are just with Jones. Both players have developed a strong bond over the years at OU.
"It's a tough deal because I was looking forward to having the offseason and two-a-days with him," said Stephenson. "We're pretty close. We keep each other going and we're a big part of that offensive line. Hopefully he can get back in time for the first couple of games. All we can do now is keep him in our prayers. We're keeping him strong. Jarvis is already a strong guy so we just kind of stick with him and keep him encouraged."
As for Williams, his offseason has prepared him to pick up the void left by Jones' absence.
"He took the time in the offseason and the summer to put on the weight and put on the muscle he needed to put on and he made it through summer workouts, which was encouraging," said Habern.
NELSON'S NEW ROLE
Corey Nelson has been playing Tony Jefferson's SAM/NICKEL/ROY-BACK slot early in spring practices. Bob Stoops termed the move an "experiment" after the first practice of the season, but it appears Nelson continues to work at the position more and more each day.
"It's been pretty good. I've been feeling very confident about it," said Nelson about the new position. "Coach Stoops said he wanted the best players out there and he's just trying to switch us around to see what fits best. So far I feel pretty good and I think my teammates feel pretty good about the different changes the coaches have made."
Should Jefferson remain at the deep safety position, it's likely Nelson will be seen more and more as a hybrid safety. So does that mean that veteran Travis Lewis is ready to keep him out of the linebacking crew?
"No he hasn't yet," laughed Nelson. "He knows I can still bring the wood so he's not going to call me a safety. He doesn't really mess with me about that right now."
LIGHTS, CAMERA, DISASTER?
ESPN camera crews are still in town filming the Sooners for the upcoming All-Access show on Aug. 24. But it's something the players are starting to get used to.
"It's cool. It definitely is a little different out at practice with cameras always following Coach Stoops," said Ben Habern. "Today Coach Patton was mic'd up with ESPN so there was a camera always following him around. Wherever we were, the camera was there. That was a little bit different but it was cool."
With Stoops worried about camera men getting run over, Habern said he hasn't been credited with any pancake blocks on ESPN personnel.
But Bruce Kittle almost was.
"Coach Kittle almost tripped over one the other day but he's fine," said Habern.
UP AND COMERS
Some buzz is starting to surface around true freshmen wide receiver Kameel Jackson and his practice performances in the early going.
"Kameel Jackson has done a great job since he's been here," said Kenny Stills when asked who has impressed him most in the early going. "He sits in the front row of film, he has his pencil and his paper out and he's doing his best to get out there on the field.
"He's made a few plays out there in practice and he's just gotta get up with the tempo and get used to the speed. He's done a great job out there and I hope he continues to improve."
Stills was also high on the development of Jaz Reynolds at receiver.
"Jaz has done a great job," Stills said. "He's started working a lot harder in the weight room and it showed on the field. When you commit to one thing it's going to show on the field. He's doing a great job out there.