Will Sunderland’s suspension forcing safety shuffle at Oklahoma

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 08: Oklahoma Sooners safety Will Sunderland (21) during the Oklahoma Sooners 45-40 victory over the Texas Longhorns in their Red River Showdown on October, 2016, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, TX. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire

“Expect the unexpected” is high on the mantra list of any coach in any sport.

When Oklahoma finished spring practice, defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks felt comfortable that junior Will Sunderland had performed well enough to step in at free safety for departed Ahmad Thomas. Sunderland figured to team with senior Steven Parker to give OU a solid backline on defense.

Then, in June, Sunderland was suspended indefinitely after being charged with felony burglary. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has said that unless Sunderland is “exonerated” by the legal system, that suspension won’t be lifted.

That means Cooks, after solving his safety problem during spring practice, is back to solving the same problem a second time.

“Football’s a fluid situation,” he said. “You always have an anticipation of the guys that you think are going to be there but that can change in a matter of 30 minutes to an hour.”

As of about one week of preseason practices, it appears that fifth-year senior Will Johnson is the best bet to start alongside Parker. Cooks is not concerned about depth, because he believes there are plenty of candidates.

“We’ve got enough depth,” he said. “We’ve got enough young guys that have played for us that it’s just a matter of putting the guys in the right position to make plays.”

Johnson, who saw most of his playing time at nickel back last season, has battled concussions throughout his career. He’s impressed with freshmen defensive backs Tre Brown, Ryan Jones and Robert Barnes, who is in the hunt to see time at either safety spot.

“This is the best group of young guys I’ve seen since I got here,” Johnson said. “There’s not a guy that I can say that he doesn’t look the part. Every young guy shows a lot of flashes.”

With Kahlil Haughton moving from free safety to strong safety to add depth at that post, sophomore Chanse Sylvie has impressed the coaching staff and might end up as the backup at free safety.

“Chanse has really been strong,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said this week. “Really been pleased with his development. You can tell he’s worked hard and has played well. He’s been a playmaker for us.”

Cooks’ task of figuring out the playing rotation at safety is tempered by the fact that he’s somber regarding Sunderland, who during spring practice he called one of the “most talented players that I’ve ever been around.”

“To put himself in a situation that takes away his opportunity to come in and be a starter, but also takes away from the team, now we’ve gotta find someone to fill that void,” Cooks said. “That’s tough. So it makes you feel bad on a lot of different levels.”

A mystery man at inside receiver

With Nick Basquine out for the season, there are opportunities on the wide receivers depth chart. The coaching staff believes that Lee Morris could work his way into the rotation.


Morris a redshirt sophomore walk-on who played at Allen (Texas) High School. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder was a teammate of Kyler Murray, who is battling to be the Sooners’ backup quarterback.

“If you go back and Google Kyler Murray and all his highlights and some of his tape, the guy that was catching all his balls was Lee Morris,” OU’s co-offensive coordinator and inside receivers coach Cale Gundy said. “What Lee can provide for us is he can play the Y position and he can play the H, which is extremely valuable.

“Again, he’s somebody that doesn’t say a whole lot. He works his butt off, plays on special teams. He’s a great team player and someone who is gonna help up this year.”

Sooner shorts

  • Athlon Sports has ranked the Oklahoma offensive line as the best unit in FBS. “In order for Oklahoma to challenge for a CFB Playoff bid, the line has to keep opposing defenders away from quarterback Baker Mayfield,” Athlon’s Steven Lassan wrote. “That task shouldn’t be tough for Lincoln Riley’s group with all five starters returning.”
  • Freshman Creed Humphrey is a 6-foot-4, 310-pound 4-star recruit. With eight experienced offensive linemen heading into preseason practice, it was likely that Humphrey – who has displayed impressive strength and power for a rookie – would redshirt this season. However, with Alex Dalton now sidelined for the season, it will be interesting to see if Humphrey progresses to the point that he could play enough to warrant not redshirting him. Humphrey saw some work with the first-team line this week.
  • Pete Fiutak, the prolific writer for College Football News, has provided his “path to the College Football Playoff” for the top contenders this season. Read what he offers in this five-step CFP process for Oklahoma.
  • Oklahoma has scheduled its first full, live scrimmage for Saturday. There has been considerable back and forth between the offensive and defensive units thus far in practices, so the scrimmage will be somewhat of a proving ground for both units.


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