If there's one thing that all Oklahoma Sooner fans can agree on, it's that improvement in one area may reign above all else: The team's defensive backfield. It's a story that we've all read before and will likely continue to read until the season is upon us.
For what it's worth, the Sooners do have talented athletes in its secondary, but they spent the majority of last season playing either out of position or oblivious to their coverage assignments.
That was the case for junior defensive back Tony Jefferson.
Jefferson, a natural free safety, didn't necessarily see a dip in production last season. However, because he was playing out of position as a hybrid outside linebacker/safety (or "nickel," as it's more commonly called), his production didn't exactly blow anybody away, either.
With Mike Stoops back on the sidelines, players are starting to move back to more natural positions. Jefferson will be lining up at free safety, Javon Harris will be making the move from free safety to strong safety, and Aaron Colvin will be moving back to cornerback.
While I'm nearly convinced that the secondary is already in a better position to perform than they were a season ago, Jefferson is the player I'm looking forward to watching the most. His versatility and range make him the best player the Sooners have to offer on that side of the ball.
Last season, Jefferson was able to nab four interceptions playing as the full-time nickel. His ball-hawking skills will be put to test even further this season, and there's a good chance Jefferson could double his production. Still, Jefferson may be even better at defending the run than the pass.
If you watched any games last season, there's probably a good chance you saw Jefferson either up near the line of scrimmage or breaking into the backfield. As if his 7.5 tackles for loss weren't impressive enough, Jefferson also finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks.
This upcoming season will be Jefferson's third straight year as a starter. As a freshman, Jefferson started in nine of his 14 games and totaled 65 tackles, two sacks and had seven pass deflections. It was a great start to a promising college career, but now as a junior, it's time for Jefferson to step up and become a leader of the defense.
The Sooners lost all of their defensive "leaders" from last season to the NFL draft, including defensive back Jamell Fleming. Being that the secondary is what needs to see the most improvement, Jefferson and senior cornerback Demontre Hurst really need to act as motivators both on and off the field for a group both looking to gain back respect and solidify their abilities.
Both Jefferson and Hurst are valid NFL prospects, but Jefferson is definitely the cream of the crop from this defense. At just 5'10" and 199 pounds, Jefferson is a bit undersized to play safety in the NFL, but, again, his range and versatility should make him valuable to a multitude of teams.
Currently, CBS Sports has Jefferson ranked as the No. 2 free safety in the 2014 draft class. However, don't rule out the fact that Jefferson could jump ship early—CBS Sports has Jefferson rated as the No. 4 free safety in the country if he were to come out as a junior.
With USC safety T.J. McDonald and Alabama safety Robert Lester graduating this year, Jefferson would likely be best to stay for his senior season. If LSU safety Eric Reid (the current No. 1 safety in both the 2013 and 2014 draft class) decides to leave early, Jefferson should really commit to staying in school. There's a great chance Jefferson could wind up as a first-round draft pick in 2014.
However, that's all speculation. Players could emerge between now and then, injuries could occur; there's just too much "what ifs" surrounding what could happen that far down the road.
First things first, though, Jefferson should be focused on furthering his production this season. The time is now for both Jefferson and the rest of Sooners secondary to prove the skeptics wrong.
I'm sensing a big year out of Jefferson, and you can quote me on that.
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