Oklahoma’s biggest off-season issue was the arrest of safety Will Sunderland.
The sophomore was charged with felony burglary in Cleveland County. He’s now suspended from the team, but Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley indicated only an exoneration of the accusation would allow Sunderland to return.
What does Sunderland’s absence mean for the Sooners as they start preseason practice?
The gap Sunderland leaves at safety is one of the biggest storylines for the Sooners’ defense.
Sunderland didn’t start a game in 2016. But he was an experienced backup and seemed to the locked a starting job at free safety. His likely departure has caused some shuffling.
The Sooners will look to experience to fill the void. Both Riley and defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks indicated senior Will Johnson would get a chance to win the job. Senior Steven Parker is the starter at strong safety.
“Having Steven in there is a big part of it. We have to find someone else to pair with him,” Riley said. “Will Johnson has had a great summer. It was probably his best summer as far as being bought in and being healthy. We’re really excited about his progress.”
Parker is excited about Johnson, too. The safeties must make as many pre-snap reads as a quarterback and experience is a critical factor.
“I always like to say he’s like the other half of my brain. He’s so smart and knows how to cover up holes and check calls,” Parker said of Johnson.
Johnson was an impact player in 2015, emerging as the nickelback in the second half of that season. But Johnson played in just seven games last season, spending half of the year in concussion protocol. He missed the final three games and was held out of spring practice.
“For a guy that had a great sophomore campaign playing our nickel position, then coming into last year, I think us as coaches probably put more on him than we should have,” Cooks said. “We probably put him in some situations that his body couldn’t handle that.
“It took him out of his flow and never really allowed him to be an integral part of the defense, which we feel like he can be. But he’s handled it well, he recovered back in the spring and actually ended up playing strong safety and free safety for us. He’s a bright, smart kid. I think he’s gonna be a huge asset for us.”
Junior Khalil Haughton played in the Sooners’ six-defensive back package and is seen as Parker’s replacement for the 2018 season.
Barnes will get a look
One of the most scrutinized players in camp will be freshman safety Robert Barnes, the Sooners’ highest-rated recruit in the 2017 class. Barnes missed the second half of last season at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High School after breaking his leg.
“I’ve actually seen him move around this summer and for a 6-3, 200-pound guy, you would never know he’s coming off the injury. came off,” Cooks said. “So he moves exceptionally well for his size.”
The Sooners have time to figure it out. But settling on a starting free safety and then filling out the extra-defensive-back packages are defensive priorities.
“We’ve got a lot of pieces in place,” Cooks said. “Who’s gonna step up and want to own our spot?”