When coach Mike Stoops was fired at Arizona during the 2011 season, then-freshman Cortez Johnson decided he was leaving, too — preferably for wherever Stoops wound up.
That was Oklahoma, where Stoops is again the defensive coordinator under his brother Bob and Johnson, who prepped at O. Perry Walker High School, is a backup cornerback.
“Coach Stoops had been hands-on in recruiting me and also built a strong relationship with my father (Ronald, an assistant coach at OPW and now Landry-Walker),” Johnson said. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been worth it in the end because I’ve developed a lot physically and mentally.”
Johnson, who had to sit out the 2012 season, played sparingly in Oklahoma’s first nine games, then started against Iowa State and Kansas State. Against Oklahoma State, Johnson was benched because, he said, he had not learned his plays well enough.
Mike Stoops indicated that was true.
“Cortez knew it would be a great challenge for him to play at a program like Oklahoma,” he said. “Hopefully that motivates him to work harder to meet those expectations. When he finds the consistency he needs, he’ll be a complete player.”
Johnson, who is expected to play Thursday in the Sugar Bowl, said he has enjoyed playing tour guide this week, particularly pointing out the good places to eat. And he has discovered that playing Alabama has made the Sooners somewhat of a local favorite.
“Everywhere we go, people tell us they’re on our side and pulling for us,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got the home-field advantage.”
Bothun comes through
Grant Bothun didn’t merit a biography in Oklahoma’s preseason media guide nor its bowl guide. But he’s a big reason the Sooners are at the Sugar Bowl.
In the team’s last regular-season game against Oklahoma State, Bothun, a redshirt freshman walk-on who is the team’s holder, executed a fake field goal with an 8-yard touchdown pass to kicker Michael Hunnicutt late in the third quarter that lifted Oklahoma to a 17-17 tie in a game they eventually won 33-24.
The play had only been installed in practice two days before.
“I figured, if they want to put it in, I’ve got to be ready to run it,” Bothun said. “We tried it a couple of times on Thursday and Friday, and the first few times I was a little rusty. But when we ran it in the game, it was automatic.”
It wasn’t the first pass Bothun had thrown. He was a three-time all-district quarterback at Rowlett High School in suburban Dallas and rejected opportunities to play at Army and Navy in favor of walking on as a wide receiver at Oklahoma.
“I was a little rusty in practice,” he said. “But executing it felt awesome. “My first thought was, ‘I’d like a chance to do this more often.’ ”
So might the Sooners try the play again Thursday?
“I’d expect (Alabama) to be ready,” he said. “But if they call it again, I’ll be ready, too.”
New-look Bama line
The Alabama offensive line that will face Oklahoma is much different than the one that began the season against Virginia Tech on Aug. 31. The faces are mostly the same, but the quality of play has improved dramatically.
Right guard Anthony Steen, who has started every game the past two seasons, is sidelined after recent shoulder surgery.
It appears Leon Brown will replace will start in Steen’s place, though Kellen Williams and Alphonse Taylor also have been practicing there.
“I believe he’ll do the job,” left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said of Brown. “He’s an aggressive personality.”
The Tide line, which sent three players to the NFL after last season, gave up a season-worst four sacks and gained a season-low 206 yards in the season opener. Since then, Bama has allowed just six sacks in 11 games, including three in the past eight. It has gained at least 338 yards in every game since the opener.
“We’re not a brand new offensive line anymore,” Kouandjio said.
Guard Chance Warmack was a first-round choice who started all 16 games for the Tennessee Titans. Tackle D.J. Fluker was a first-rounder of the San Diego Chargers who has started 15 games. Guard Barrett Jones was a fourth-round pick who played in three games with the St. Louis Rams. Tight end Michael Williams was a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Lions and spent the season on injured reserve with a broken hand.
Coach on the field
Tide defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson has opened some eyes in his first season.
He was named a Freshman All-American by The Sporting News and was an SEC all-freshman pick by the league’s coaches. He has played in all 12 games, started two and been in on 36 tackles, including a team-high 5.5 sacks.
Robinson made an impression on defensive coordinator Kirby Smart the first time he saw the 6-foot-4, 320-pounder from Fort Worth, Texas.
“I wondered where his whistle was because he looks like a coach,” Smart said. “He’s about a 28-looking-year-old dude.”