NORMAN — A year after leading the Big 12 in opponent completion percentage, OU returns three starters and a pair of nickelback options in the secondary in 2017. In particular, the unit looks to build on a four-game stretch to close out last season where it held opponents to a combined completion percentage under 46 percent.
The Sooners must replace veteran safety Ahmad Thomas, but senior Steven Parker returns at the other safety position after producing 63 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four pass breakups last season. A vocal leader who can also play nickelback, Parker has made 30 career starts and was an honorable mention All-Big 12 pick in 2016 and a second-team all-league selection in 2015.
As the defense improved down the stretch of the 2016 season, the Tulsa, Okla., product said the unit is using training camp to apply that momentum to this season.
"We kind of started off slow but we ended really great as the season went on," said Parker. "I feel like now we are starting off on that great streak. We are starting off early instead of slow like we have in the past years. I feel like we are getting it done."
The safety spot opposite Parker has several worthy suitors, including senior Will Johnson, sophomore Chanse Sylvie and true freshman Robert Barnes.
Johnson has played in 18 games over his two-year career with 58 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and four pass breakups, while Sylvie appeared in 11 games in his debut season last year with five tackles. The son of former OU linebacker Reggie Barnes, Robert Barnes was rated as a five-star recruit by 247Sports and was a U.S. Army All-American at Southlake, Texas.
Assistant defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks will have much more familiarity at the cornerback spots, as both of his starting 2016 corners return for 2017.
Senior Jordan Thomas begins his third season as a full-time starter and has become a leader for the defensive unit. Thomas excels in coverage and disrupts opposing passing attacks. In 2016, he tied for second nationally by breaking up 1.5 passes per game and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors. In 2015, he ranked fourth in the conference with five interceptions.
A true position battle has broken out at the other corner spot between incumbent starter Jordan Parker and fellow sophomore Parnell Motley, who came on strong during spring practice.
As a true freshman last year, Jordan Parker was thrust into a starting role despite missing much of the summer and fall workouts following a pair of heart surgeries. His first action came against Texas, and he started the last eight games of the season, recording 36 tackles, three pass breakups, one tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
Motley, meanwhile, played in 11 games last year as a true freshman, though most of it was on special teams. He had nine tackles on the season, including a career-high four against ULM in his debut. He made tremendous strides this past spring and recorded an interception in the spring game.
In nickel situations last year, junior Kahlil Haughton took over safety duties early in the season while Steven Parker played the nickel role thereafter. Haughton could be headed for a bigger role in 2017.
In addition to Barnes, other true freshmen have also made a name for themselves so far in fall camp, including cornerbacks Justin Broiles, Tre Brown and Tre Norwood. Broiles and Brown were four-star recruits, while Norwood was a consensus three-star prospect.