|Quarterback Landry Jones :: US PRESSWIRE|
Tony Jefferson was still in middle school the last time Mike Stoops ran Oklahoma's defense, but the Sooners' junior safety has heard plenty of stories about his new coordinator. "I've talked to some of the former players that come around, like [defensive backs] Derrick Strait and Roy Williams," said Jefferson. "They said he likes to scream and get into it." Stoops's animated sideline rants were a source of criticism over his eight years as Arizona's head coach, but OU fans welcome that familiar intensity. He rejoins his brother, head coach Bob, and has reclaimed the coordinator job he held in Norman from 1999 through 2003, when he helped the Sooners produce four straight top 10 defenses.
Though Oklahoma won five Big 12 titles during Mike's time away, its defense never returned to the consistently elite level it enjoyed under him in the early 2000s. Last year was particularly rough. The Sooners entered the season ranked No. 1 but lost to three teams who torched their defense through the air, winding up in the Insight Bowl. Texas Tech racked up 572 total yards in a 41-38 upset. Baylor Heisman winner Robert Griffin III threw for 479 yards and four TDs. And OSU gave the Sooners a 44-10 drubbing for its first win in the Bedlam series since '02. "You're at the University of Oklahoma," said Jefferson. "That's not acceptable."
Fans are hoping that Mike Stoops's return will help the Sooners cut down on big plays allowed, but the coordinator warns, "There are no magical calls in football. There's good calls, but the players make them magical by the way they play. We can play better."
A former Iowa defensive back, Stoops spent the spring shuffling personnel in hopes of shoring up the secondary. Jefferson, who has played linebacker and nickelback, moves to free safety, while athletic Aaron Colvin shifts from safety to cornerback, opposite Demontre Hurst. Expect OU, with four starting linemen and linebackers returning, to take more risks and pressure opposing passers.
Despite a slew of injuries on the offensive line, Oklahoma's strong suit will likely remain its familiar up-tempo attack, led by four-year starting quarterback Landry Jones. "One thing about Oklahoma, we're going to be able to score points," said Mike Stoops. "That should take some pressure off the defense." Even as its coordinator provides plenty of heat.
317.4 -- Career passing yards per game averaged by Landry Jones, the highest of any active QB (minimum 10 FBS games).
Demontre Hurst, CB, Sr. -- A third-year starter, Hurst earned second-team All-Big 12 honors last season, finishing with a team-high 11 pass breakups. His most memorable play was a 55-yard interception return TD against Texas.
Tony Jefferson, FS, Jr. -- The 5-foot-10, 199-pound Jefferson, who makes his biggest impact close to the line of scrimmage, often lines up against slot receivers or creeps up to stop the run. He was third on the team with 74 tackles and picked off three passes against Ball State.
Kenny Stills, WR, Jr. -- A starter since the first game of his freshman year, Stills is the rare veteran in OU's receiving corps. Last season he caught 61 passes for 849 yards despite missing one game for a suspension and one due to a concussion. He ranks 11th at Oklahoma in career receiving yards (1,635).
Dominique Whaley, RB, Sr. -- The former walk-on should be fully recovered from a fractured ankle that cut his 2011 season in half. In the first six games he rushed for 627 yards and nine TDs. The Sooners' running game suffered without him.
R.J. Washington, DE, Sr. -- After spending three seasons as a backup (though he played in all 13 games last year), the former five-star recruit will get full-time duty due to the departures of standout ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis. He offered a sneak peek in the Sooners' Insight Bowl win over Iowa, coming up with two sacks while facing off against 2012 first-round NFL draft pick Riley Reiff.
Trey Metoyer, WR, Fr. -- Metoyer, the No. 2-rated receiver on Rivals.com, has already established himself as a sure-handed talent (he didn't drop a pass all spring), catching six passes for 72 yards in the final scrimmage. He could be the answer to replacing star Ryan Broyles.
Landry Jones is already Oklahoma's all-time passing leader with 12,379 career yards. He has won a Big 12 championship and gone 29-8 as a starter, including 3-0 in bowls. Given that he is widely projected as a first-round draft choice, one could hardly have faulted the 6-foot-4, 229-pound quarterback if he had left early for this past spring's NFL draft. "I went back and forth so many times," said the Artesia, N.M., native. Ultimately, however, the desire to ease the sting of a disappointing end to his junior season kept him in Norman.
Hobbled by the loss of Ryan Broyles, OU's All-America receiver, to a torn ACL in the ninth game of the season, Jones and the Sooners (8-1 at the time) dropped two of their last three regular-season games. A quarterback with nine career 400-yard performances to his credit failed to throw for more than 256 yards in those final three starts while throwing five interceptions. "I felt there was more out there for me, individually and as a team," said Jones. "[The NFL's] always going to be there. I don't get another senior year, I don't get another chance to win a national championship."
Yet Oklahoma fans did not all hail Jones's decision. Even before that end-of-season funk, the three-year starter had endured a steady stream of criticism, in part because of a habit of throwing interceptions (he's had at least 12 every season, including 15 last year) and in part because of the standard set by his predecessor, 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. As a redshirt freshman, Jones took over for Bradford when the eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick injured his shoulder in the season opener against BYU. Oklahoma struggled through an 8-5 season, the team's worst in a decade. "It was really hard coming after Sam," said Jones' wife, Whitney, also the Sooners' All-Big 12 point guard. "Sam was the golden boy at Oklahoma, and rightfully so. I felt sorry for [Landry] that whole first year. He was pretty miserable."
Jones progressed significantly over the next two years, excelling in a breakneck offense that has allowed him to throw 40-plus times per game. A highlight came last year against Texas, when he threw for 367 yards and three TDs without an interception in a 55-17 rout. Still, Jones knew he had room to improve. He spent spring break in Palo Alto, Calif., training with a private quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield, who has also worked with Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. "I wanted to pick his brain about moving in the pocket, on how to do it efficiently and play as fast as you can," said Jones. He also put himself on a diet of lean meats, fruits and vegetables, sacrificing his favorite sweets. "A big thing for me is eating the right way so I can be lean but weigh as much as I can," he said.
Jones will play his final season behind an offensive line decimated by offseason injuries and with a young receiving corps. Broyles was drafted by the Lions, and returnees Trey Franks, Kameel Jackson and Jaz Reynolds will serve multi-game suspensions for violating team rules. (They're likely off the squad until at least September.) That leaves second-team All-Big 12 wideout Kenny Stills and a bunch of freshmen, most notably spring standout Trey Metoyer. Jones knows his play as a senior will have a big impact on just where he slots in on that NFL draft board. "The worst thing that could happen is I fall," said Jones. "But I'm not going to let myself regress and get worse." He didn't skip all those desserts this offseason for anything less than a triumphant finale.
SI: You are entering your 14th season as coach. What keeps you coming back?
BS: The biggest factor has been my administration. I've had the same president [David Boren] and AD [Joe Castiglione] for 14 years. I get great support. I don't believe the grass is much greener anywhere else.
SI: The national championshop or bust expectations that many fans have don't bother you?
BS: There's a great majority that get that this isn't easy to do. There's always going to be grumblings if you don't win them all.
SI: Was last year a disappointment?
BS: We didn't meet my expectations. There were a few games where, as a team, we broke down. That's how you get beat at home when you haven't been beat at home in six years. Also, I'm not making excuses, but [when] you lose your leading rusher [Dominique Whaley] and receiver [Ryan Broyles], it changes you.
SI: Will we continue to see the Belldozer package with backup QB Blake Bell?
BS: We'll continue to use it in short yardage and goal line [situations]. It made a huge difference in our third-down, fourth-down, goal line efficiency.
SI: What are your thoughts on the Big 12, now that TCU and West Virginia have joined?
BS: It's gotten stronger. We just added two ranked teams. [The players] are not dumb. They know it.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big 12 Preview.