Mike Stoops' restoration project

NORMAN, Okla. -- The first two years of Roy Williams' Oklahoma career, Mike Stoops would call him "fat" and "pear shaped." And whenever he found the chance, the Sooners defensive coordinator would remind Williams that Kansas State's Jarrod Cooper "was the best safety he'd ever coached in his life."

"It p---ed me off me off," Williams said. "It made me want to show him that I was the best he ever coached."

Williams sure showed Stoops. But it was Stoops who really showed him.

"He really wants you to be great," said Williams, who in 2001 won the Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in the country. "He's going to push to reach your full potential."

As the Sooners prepare for their opener Saturday against UTEP in El Paso, Stoops is back in his role as coordinator, attempting to resurrect an OU defense that has failed to reach its potential lately. The Sooners have ranked outside the Top 50 in total defense the last two seasons and gave up 40 points three times last season for the first time since the John Blake era.

Much has been made of Stoops' simplification of his predecessor's more complicated scheme. And sure, the defense will be less complex than it was under Brent Venables. Under Stoops, the Sooners figure to play more man-to-man. They'll also likely blitz less and instead try to exert pressure on the quarterback with their four down linemen.

"I know one thing, the players will be well prepared, they won't be surprised," Williams said. "Last year, I don't want to say they looked surprised, but they looked like they had a lack of concentration -- just out of sorts. Maybe they had too much going on. There's not going to be all of that.

"It's going to be very simplistic -- a very simple playbook -- so the guys can go out, have fun and execute."

The simplification should help eliminate many of the mental breakdowns that plagued the defense last season, especially in losses to Texas Tech and Baylor. But maybe just as critical will be the intangibles Stoops brings to the sidelines, intangibles the OU defense has sorely missed the last couple of seasons.

"He loves football and is so passionate about it," said former Sooners defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek. "Taking nothing away from Brent Venables because I love Brent Venables, I think he's phenomenal. But there's something about Mike Stoops that he will get you to run through that wall. You want to show him so bad that you can do it, it gets you that motivated and amped up.

"He is such an intense guy, he raises the level of everyone's play."

The question remains, will he be able to do the same with this defense? For OU to truly contend for a national championship, he'll have to.

The Sooners have enough pieces in place to produce a championship-caliber defense. The defensive line lacks a difference-maker such as Tommie Harris or Gerald McCoy, but it possesses a nice blend of seasoned veterans such as David King and Casey Walker and potential future stars such as Jordan Phillips and Charles Tapper. The linebacking corps is deep and fast.

But whether the defense returns to the elite probably hinges on whether Stoops can elevate the performance of a defensive backfield that, while loaded with talent, was gashed too often last season.

"One of the biggest deals will be how the secondary responds to Coach Stoops," Williams said. "The secondary is going to determine how that team goes."

The secondary potentially could be one of the best of the Stoops era. Last year's fall guys, Javon Harris and Gabe Lynn, have thrived so far under the new regime. Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst, meanwhile, form a cornerback tandem that could hearken back to the days of Derrick Strait and Andre Woolfolk.

"Mike Stoops has come in and really changed our mentality," said Colvin, who was moved from safety to cornerback during the offseason. "We've taken more initiative in doing things right the first time."

The key to the secondary truly imposing its will, however, could come down to whether Stoops can get through to free safety Tony Jefferson the way he did with Williams. Jefferson won a starting job at nickelback as a true freshman and immediately drew comparisons to Williams. But Jefferson has yet to take over the defense the way Williams consistently did.

"Coach (Mike) Stoops is really going to push and challenge them," Williams said. "Who knows if Tony Jefferson is going to respond to that? He can be a very dominant safety. He just has to believe in Coach Stoops and himself and perform."

So far, signs out of camp have been encouraging.

"I've heard the secondary has been playing really well, and they're not beating their chest acting like it," Dvoracek said. "That tells me the Mike Stoops effect is working. I don't ever remember Derrick Strait or Andre Woolfolk even acting like they were good players. They just did their business, did it well, and did it on every play.

"There were no 'Sharks' then. You did your job. That's the way Mike Stoops is."

Will the rest of the defense be that way, too? Saturday, we begin to find out.