OU working to build defensive depth

NORMAN, Okla. -- Dealing with the explosive, uptempo offenses of the Big 12 is a difficult test for Oklahoma every week.

And it has nothing to do with the arm of Brandon Weeden, the legs of Robert Griffin III or the hands of Justin Blackmon.

The sheer number of offensive plays run per game can extend a defense as much as, if not more than, the conference's most explosive playmakers.

"That's the nature of these offenses," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "When we are playing a team that plays [uptempo] like us, there are more possessions for everybody.

"Defensively, you have to try to build that depth so you can stay fresh throughout the game."

OU's defense is facing an average of 73.4 plays per game this season including 96 plays against Texas Tech and 92 against Texas A&M.

"It's very tough," cornerback Demontre Hurst said of playing 70-plus snaps per game. "Being out there for that amount of plays is tough; you just have the attitude of grinding it out."

That's why developing defensive depth is a critical part of building a team and building a program.

Yet, it remains difficult task for the Oklahoma Sooners.

"Some years you don't have it," Venables said. "Then some years you find out you do have it on accident and maybe during fall camp guys are really stepping up and we've got to find ways to get guys on the field.

"This year we have four, five or six guys who we feel if they are in the game, they can make us better or play at the same level."

The Sooners have 17 defenders who could play significant roles in various defensive packages, but there have been times this season when Oklahoma's depth was tested and the defense has struggled.

When cornerback Jamell Fleming was forced to miss the Texas Tech game due to a knee injury, Gabe Lynn started in his place. He struggled and was replaced by safety Aaron Colvin in the third quarter.

Lynn has played a significant role as OU's No. 3 cornerback, but Lamar Harris, the other backup cornerback on OU's two-deep depth chart, has seen limited action on defense. Thus with Fleming out and Lynn struggling against Texas Tech, OU turned to Colvin.

The loss of Fleming was felt as the Sooners gave up 572 yards on 96 plays, and OU suffered its lone loss of the season. Additional depth at defensive back would have helped against the Red Raiders, but the coaching staff felt like the move of Colvin to cornerback -- a position he played as a freshman -- was the best way to get their top 11 players on the field and avoid throwing an untested young cornerback like Harris or Julian Wilson into the fire.

Ideally, Harris, Wilson or any other young cornerback would have had plenty of game reps on their resume.

The question is: How?

The easy answer would be to prepare the backups with a series or two during each game. But Oklahoma's starters at linebacker and defensive back play the majority of the snaps, with backup players seeing limited action until they force the coaches to find a way to get them on the field with their play in practice.

For example, defensive ends David King and R.J. Washington have forced the coaching staff to find a way to get them on the field. Thus, OU's four defensive end package -- "Endy" -- was born.

Another option for the Sooners would be to put the backups in the game during blowouts. Yet, it's quite common to see Oklahoma's starting defense on the field deep into the second half with the Sooners protecting a 30- or 40-point lead. It is during those instances that OU could empty its bench, giving its second- and third-teamers valuable game reps, but that sounds easier than it is.

"You start putting your backups in up front," Venables said of the Sooners' approach during blowout wins. "Then you start trickling your [other] backups in, but you still have to have guys who can call a play and execute.

"Sometimes your hands are tied like that. You'd like to get more guys out there, but they haven't shown they're ready to get out there and run things completely on their own. So you have to leave a few veterans to help them along the way."

And that's the dilemma.

While the Sooners consistently rotate their four defensive linemen, often playing at least seven defensive linemen each game, the rotation is much slimmer at linebacker and defensive back.

And don't expect that to change until the other linebackers and defensive backs on the roster force the coaches to play them and prove there will be little drop-off when they are on the field

Simply put, game reps aren't given at Oklahoma. They are earned.

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.

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