Sooner center says OU plays defense

FORT LAUDERDALE — Jon Cooper bristles a little bit every time he hears that same nagging question about defense, or lack of, in the Big 12 Conference. With so many record-setting quarterbacks including a Heisman Trophy winner that he blocks for at Oklahoma, the perception is that maybe the offenses are so good because the defenses are so bad. Cooper would beg to differ.

“I know our team plays defense,” said Cooper, who snaps the ball to Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy quarterback Sam Bradford. “We go against them every day in practice. I know they play defense and they play well.”

The Sooners will be facing the best defense they’ve seen all season next Thursday night when they face the Florida Gators in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game at Dolphins Stadium and the debate is raging — are the offenses in the Big 12 that good or is it a case that the defenses are that bad?

Oklahoma’s offense is the showcase of the debate. The Sooners have the top scoring offense in the nation, averaging 54 points per game. The Sooners scored an NCAA record 702 points, setting another NCAA record by torching six straight opponents for at least 61 points at the end of the year. Cooper isn’t about to call the Sooners the best offense ever — that’s for another time and another place — and he knows this is a team that can put points on the board in a hurry, but the goal, he says, isn’t to set scoring records.

“We watch ESPN like everybody else and we hear it,” said Cooper. “That’s not our goal to have the best offense. Our goal is to come down here and win a football game. Our goal is not to score 60 points but just to score one more point than the other team.”

Led by Bradford, who threw for 48 touchdown passes and won the Heisman Trophy as a third-year sophomore, the Sooners have been as efficient offensively as any team in the history of college football. Bradford’s calling cards are a lightning quick release, superior accuracy and terrific decision-making.

Cooper says the Sooners thought they had something special on their hands even during that first year in Norman when Bradford took a redshirt.

“He was a great player when he first got here when he was playing on our scout team against our defense,” said Cooper, a 6-3, 290-pound senior. “He was doing well and you could tell he was going to be something special. His redshirt freshman year (2007 season) everyone was like is he surprising you? We weren’t that surprised because we had seen what he could do [the previous year].”

From a highly productive 2007 to an even more productive 2008, Bradford has shown the physical skills that have the NFL scouts drooling all along. If there has been one area that he has developed appreciably in the last year, however, it is in the areas of leadership.

“I’m really impressed with how he’s matured as a leader off the field, in the weight room, when we’re running, when we’re conditioning or in a meeting,” said Cooper. “He will call a player’s only meeting more than anyone else. He’ll stand up and speak and tell everyone what’s on his mind.”

Oklahoma’s offensive line takes a lot of pride in keeping Bradford’s jersey the cleanest on the field. Through 13 games, Bradford has been sacked only 11 times, which is the third-best total in the nation.

The Sooners know that if Bradford wears a clean jersey, their offense is probably putting plenty of points on the scoreboard.

“We don’t like him getting touched,” said Cooper.  “Someone told me the other week back in Norman that he’s been hit only 25 times this year. That still seems like too much to me. Whether it’s a sack or a running play, anything. We take pride that we do give up less than one sack a game. The fact that he’s been hit at all, that’s disappointing.”

While much of the notoriety for Oklahoma’s offensive linemen comes from their pass blocking, Cooper is quick to point out that the Sooners aren’t afraid to run the ball. Their running game put up 205 yards per game and produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Chris Brown (1,110 yards) and DeMarco Murray (1,002 yards). 

Murray is injured and won’t be able to play against the Gators but Cooepr says the Sooners should do just fine. Brown has produced at a high level this year and third-team tailback Mossis Madu gained 463 yards including 114 in the Big 12 Conference Championship Game against Missouri

“We’ve got quite a few running backs and we’re lucky to have the depth like that,” said Cooper. “Chris Brown has been great all year and he’s our leading rusher and then Mossis Madu has come in and done a great job when DeMarco’s been out. I think they’ve proven for themselves that they can do a great job without DeMarco.”

As good as Oklahoma’s offense is, however, Cooper knows the Florida Gators have a rather productive offense as well. Having watched the Gators on film on both sides of the ball, he knows the Sooners better bring their A-game and he’s hoping they have the ball on the game’s last possession.

“I just think it’s going to come down to the last drive,” he said. “Whoever has the ball, it’s going to come down to a last second play or just the last drive.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.