Harris, who has been used primarily at tackle to stop the first-down run or thwart the quick pass, liked the flexibility afforded him by Oklahoma's swarming style. "It's so fun to play in our defense," he says. "Every man has his own gap, and on every down it's first-come, first-served. It's like we're all after a piece of meat out there." By the end of his first season Harris had a team-best 17 tackles for loss, as well as 14 quarterback hurries. Conference coaches named him the Big 12's best freshman defensive player.
Wilkerson was an option quarterback and dominating linebacker from Omaha, Texas, who in high school had 1,209 passing yards and 1,430 rushing yards, plus 111 tackles as a senior. He signed with the Sooners to play linebacker and wound up as one of three true freshmen to see time on defense for the national champions. In preparing for the title game against Florida State, the staff realized it needed extra speed on the pass rush and threw Wilkerson into the practice rotation at defensive end. Despite just a few drills' worth of experience, he played as if he were born to the position, producing three tackles, a pass deflection and two quarterback pressures against the Seminoles.
In addition to having the strength to bench well over 400 pounds and the catch-up speed of a defensive back, Wilkerson intimidates quarterbacks with his sharp reflexes and long limbs. Just ask Texas's Chris Simms, whom he sacked three times in Oklahoma's 14-3 win last year. Operating mostly on innate ability in his first full year on the line, Wilkerson produced 18 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2001. "Jimmy had no idea what he was doing out there last year," says Harris, "and he couldn't help but be awesome."
One of the biggest benefits of stockpiling multidimensional athletes is instant depth. When a car accident sidelined cornerback Michael Thompson before the 2001 season, Sooners coaches had to address a shortage of defensive backs, five of whom are required in 70% of Oklahoma's sets. They looked at the opposite side of the ball, where Woolfolk had been making circus catches since he was a redshirt freshman. A few weeks before the start of the season Woolfolk was asked to spend half of practice with the receivers and the other half with the secondary, where he quickly added aggressive tackling to his r�sum�. Now that his field sense has caught up with his speed, he'll play almost exclusively at corner this season. "Sometimes during a game I'll look over my shoulder just to catch Andre breezing toward the ball," says junior defensive tackle Kory Klein. "He makes the most ridiculous plays look easy."
That's a talent shared by Williams's replacement, strong safety Eric Bassey, who may be the next great defensive player to emerge at Oklahoma. The 6' 1", 195-pound redshirt freshman from Garland, Texas—a defensive back, receiver, kick returner and district champion in the 400 meters in high school—has the same versatility that made Williams such a terror. At 4-32 in the 40, Bassey is the fastest player on the team. "It's a bit of a gamble [putting him in Williams's spot] since Eric's an unknown," says Mike Stoops, "but I believe in his toughness and athletic ability."
The Sooners began working Bassey into the starting rotation even before last season ended. "That was in December, when Roy didn't need any more reps," says Mike Stoops. "Our rebuilding always starts the day after the last regular-season game—we see bowl preparation as 20 extra spring practices." The defense, in particular, has profited from the approach. After beating Arkansas 10-3 in the Cotton Bowl, Harris and company shut out the first-team Oklahoma offense in the spring game in April, suggesting that this fall defense could carry the team back to the national title.
But while natural ability is a prerequisite for Sooners defensive players, the staff will rip into any player who doesn't put his all into conditioning and practice. Players get the message the moment they begin the team's jelly-leg-inducing off-season workout program, in which noseguards are expected to keep up with cornerbacks in early-morning mat drills and wind sprints up a hill adjacent to Memorial Stadium. On a Monday morning in June, players were rotating in precisely timed shifts from the weight room to the practice turf to the dreaded hill. "We emphasize footwork and eye-hand stuff more than other teams," says strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, watching Harris lay into a teammate in a one-on-one, quick-hands punching drill. "We don't have guys dragging telephone poles up the middle of the field."
With seven of its top 11 defenders returning, Oklahoma had the luxury this summer of concentrating on building strength. Schmidt has been asked to push the weights and protein shakes in the months leading up to the Aug. 30 season opener at Tulsa. "It's been mad chaos in the weight room, everyone asking each other how many times they put up 225," says Woolfolk, who has dropped his body fat from 10% to 7% since last season, while increasing his vertical jump to 38. Wilkerson has put on 25 pounds since last summer and lowered his 40 time from 4.67 to 4.61.
"Total strangers have been poking at my arms in the mall or at restaurants lately," says Harris, who has lowered his body fat from 17.5% to 14.9% and added eight pounds of muscle. "But kids have been calling me a monster since the 10th grade. I guess it's a good thing, looking scary."
Good for Oklahoma. For the rest of the country, this house-of-horrors defense will be a nightmare for years to come.