April 24, 2014

Hayes looks to lead OU's secondary next fall

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Still in his pads following Oklahoma's only open media practice this year, strong safety Quentin Hayes mixed and mingled with reporters and students on Owen Field.

He chatted up a group that congregated around him. He posed still with others while they snapped selfies in the warm April sun.

Later the OU brass trotted out the Sooners' 4-month-old Sugar Bowl trophy so players, coaches and students could squeeze together for one gigantic poster of a picture.

The theme for the day was festive just two days before Oklahoma's public spring scrimmage. For Hayes, it was another day to mark off the calendar as he headed into the final days of spring practice.

"Practice has been going real good," Hayes said. "I'm a senior, so I've just kind of been through it before. I've learned from my mistakes."

He needed to.

Last year, he was named a starter in a veteran secondary for the first time in his career, and he made the most of it. As the man responsible for anything tossed over the top of the defense he succeeded more times than not.

As a junior, Hayes notched 75 tackles, six pass-breakups, two forced fumbles and snatched two picks. In the Sugar Bowl alone, he came up with five stops against mighty Alabama.

Since then defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has gotten what he needs out of Hayes during winter workouts and spring practice.

"Quentin has been great," Stoops said. "He's been one of our more consistent players this spring. You can tell the amount of experience he got last season really helped him."

Hayes was buoyed by upperclassmen in 2013, who, unlike him, saw game action during the 2012 season and could be relied on to wrap up receivers and make plays when the ball was in the air.

Even through an injury-plagued senior year, former Sooner Aaron Colvin was the closest thing OU had to a shutdown corner.

Former Sooner Gabe Lynn was the kind of free safety who was big enough to be that eighth man in the box and had speedy enough to close down fleet-footed wide outs.

Senior Julian Wilson came into his own as nickel back in OU's 3-4 front, picking off three passes in 13 games, and corner back Zack Sanchez matured as the season wore on.

Hayes could be allowed to make more mistakes with that kind of experience and talent surrounding him. And he did make mistakes.

When Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett took the top off the Sooner defense with 278 yards receiving on 12 catches with three touchdowns, it was mostly because Hayes was caught looking, caught out of position or just got straight torched in a footrace with Lockett.

He can't afford to have those kinds of days next season if the Sooners are going to have a solid secondary. There's talent behind him, sure, and Hayes is aware of that.

"They're going to be ready," said Hayes of the young secondary players. "Come fall, they're going to be ready. They're talented. Everybody's got a lot of talent. As you can see, Dakota [Austin] got an interception. He's got a lot of talent."

Young safeties Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd have each been spoken highly of by Stoops and even Hayes himself.

"They're good. We're all in the same film room," Hayes said. "We all just work together. They learn from me. I learn from them."

The Sooners will also get incoming freshman safety Steven Parker -- the Rivals.com No. 1 prep player in Oklahoma this year -- in for summer workouts and fall camp. But OU would play a walk-on transfer, sophomore Thaddeus LaGrone, at safety during its spring scrimmage. Deep and experienced at the position, OU is not.

That's why it is incumbent upon Hayes to assume the leadership role in the secondary, along with Wilson, this summer and into the fall. They are the veterans back there. Now is the time for them to become leaders.

Standing on the grass inside Memorial Stadium, Hayes certainly looks the part. But it's April, and there's a lot of time that will pass by between now and OU's season opener.

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