By Tyler Palmateer

The number “129” has been present in Oklahoma’s football facility since spring practice, with coaches using the Sooners’ national ranking in passing yards allowed a year ago as a motivational reminder.

But OU’s defensive backs have also been easy targets for harsher, more pointed criticism during the past few seasons as the program’s defensive numbers have sunk.

Aside from turnovers, one of the best indicators of a change on defense will be how the Sooners fare against the pass.

"We love it. All eyes are on us and we know that,” sophomore nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles said.

Junior safety Robert Barnes tries a practical approach.

“What we always say is you can’t look at the good, you can’t look at the bad,” Barnes said. “Of course we hear it (the criticism). It’s everywhere. You can’t miss it. What I appreciate with these guys is we focus on each other. We’re all we got.”

OU is far from releasing a depth chart ahead of the Sept. 1 opener against Houston. But cornerbacks coach Roy Manning is challenging players to position themselves now.

“We’ve been harping on those guys to flash on tape and start making your move early,” Manning said. “There’s a game here coming up sooner rather than later. The urgency of all those guys has to be of such.”

• Draper’s outlook: Levi Draper’s playing time has mostly been on special teams role since he signed as a highly coveted five-star recruit out of Collinsville.

An injury forced him to redshirt in 2017 and last season was mostly a learning experience. But as a redshirt sophomore he looks different.

His physical gains are as impressive as any other Sooner — he’s up to 245 pounds from 226 last fall.

“I think Levi made a real conscious effort in being consistent and buying in. When you talk about being consistent and doing those details the right way, you turn around three months later and you’re up (19) pounds and down with your body fat percentage and you’re in great shape,” inside linebackers coach Brian Odom said. “He’s running around and doing a great job this camp.” 

• Name to watch: Isaiah Thomas came on late last season. He appeared in each of the last five games and could carve out a bigger role on OU’s defensive line.

The redshirt sophomore defensive end from Tulsa Memorial has impressed defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux so far.

“I know it's early [but Thomas] has really flashed,” Thibodeaux said.

“You could tell it's slowing down for him and he's making plays. Then you blend in a mix of the two puppies, Marcus Stripling and Kori Roberson and Jalen Redmond. I feel like the group is going to be athletic. And there's gonna be some guys that can get to the football.”

• This, that: Thibodeaux said defensive tackle Marquise Overton’s appendix operation and foot injury last season slowed him down more than some know. He thinks Overton looks as good as he has physically since 2017. … Jordan Parker started his college career as a cornerback and moved to safety, with a torn ACL slowing his progress in between. He’s back working with cornerbacks again.

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