Zack Sanchez's early departure leaves hole in Oklahoma secondary

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defense will have a significant hole in the secondary as the Sooners try to return to the College Football Playoff.

Time and time again, Zack Sanchez stepped up in critical moments for Oklahoma. A continuous presence in the secondary while starting all 37 games he played in crimson and cream, Sanchez was at his best against the best. During his three seasons as a starter, Sanchez had 18.5 disrupted dropbacks (interception/pass breakup/sack/batted pass) and six interceptions in 14 career games against AP top 25 teams. Sanchez, who declared early for the NFL draft, was particularly productive during his final season with five interceptions in six games against top 25 competition in 2015.

Thus, replacing the All-Big 12 cornerback sits atop the to-do list of defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks this spring.

“You can’t replace his production with his natural instincts and feel for the game,” Cooks said. “We’re looking for a guy who is going to be disciplined and do his job every single snap.”

The rest of Oklahoma’s secondary is in terrific shape. Jordan Thomas returns at the opposite cornerback spot after a sophomore season that included second team All-Big 12 honors, while safeties Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas return to give the Sooners one of the top safety duos in the Big 12. Will Johnson returns at the nickel back spot after solidifying the Sooners' defense with his solid play in the second half of 2015.

Oklahoma has several candidates to fill the void including Dakota Austin, who played well when Sanchez was injured against Texas Tech in 2015. Austin essentially played three full games in Sanchez absence, recording 25 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions in wins over Tech, Kansas and Iowa State.

“We’re fortunate to have a guy who played well when he had his opportunity,” Cooks said. “But now we’re going to see if he can do it full time.”

Austin sits atop the queue to enter the starting lineup, but his spot is far from secure. Sophomore P.J. Mbanasor will get the chance to show he’s much improved after starting a pair of games as a true freshman.

“P.J. is night and day different from what he was,” Cooks said. “He has a better feel for what he has to do, a better feel for our defense. He’s still a long way away.”

Rebuilding the trust that Sanchez and the rest of the secondary had built while playing together for two-plus seasons could be the biggest challenge. It’s a time-release exercise that will make the five months before the season starts critical as the Sooners' defensive backs look to build that camaraderie and trust during practices, offseason workouts and even times hanging out together during their free time.

“Zack and Ahmad could just look at each other and know 'I’m about to jump this route' … they don't have that right now,” Cooks said. “That’s a challenge, trying to build that chemistry, that trust whoever that guy is, be it Dakota, PJ or one of the young corners coming in. We’re starting from square one, even though we have guys who have played a lot, we still have to rebuild.”