New cornerbacks coach Jay Valai he might have it easier than almost any of his fellow coaches in the Oklahoma staff room.
Valai has two returning starters to fill his two cornerback positions in 2022, a luxury, of course.
But while Valai may know (or have a pretty good idea) who starts this season, he’s also tasked with building depth, identifying backups and making sure everyone is ready to play.
2022 Oklahoma Position Overview
Valai — who also coaches OU’s nickel back position; it’s going to be a little trickier – said in the spring that competition was fierce for the cornerback spots and despite the return of Woody Washington and DJ Graham as beginners, competition is exactly what a new trainer needs to see.
“If you’re better than anyone in front of you, you’re going to get it,” Valai said. “If there is no one in front of you, you are next to each other. One thing I went in with, and it’s the same with all the staff, is open competition. Eat or be eaten. It was good to see guys really pushing and pushing themselves to achieve what they want in life.”
Washington, a junior from Murfreesboro, Tenn., has only 11 career starts, but he is the undisputed leader of the group. As one of OU’s representatives at Big 12 Media Day this week, he built immediate credibility with the coaching staff as a leader and as a player.
Washington came off the bench midway through the 2020 season to take over the starting job, then started the first two games last year before an injury cost him the next seven games. He returned to the starting lineup for the final two games of the season. In essentially the equivalent of one full season as a starter and one as a backup, Washington has 87 career tackles with four interceptions and six pass breakups.
“Woody is a vet and has been a part of the game,” Valai said. “He understands the game and has a high level of desire. The most important thing is to work out its details and understand the craft and where it fits into that defense. It curls its tail. He’s always asking questions, he’s intentional, and he’s a good leader for the whole room.
Graham, a junior from Fort Worth, stepped into the starting role prior to the 2021 season and held onto the job — in part because of arguably the play of the year in college football, a horizontal one-handed, behind-the-back interception against Nebraska. However, that remained his only output of the season as Graham collected 37 tackles and two pass breakups.
“One thing DJ has really done, he’s really worked on not being a guy known for just one game,” Valai said. “He made a great catch. Good job. But there has to be more, right? You don’t want to be defined by one thing you do in life. Because it’s usually the 15 minutes of fame people, right? For DJ, it’s going back to the details, just like everybody else, understanding his form, understanding his FBI – football intelligence – on the football pitch and how do I constantly get better? … He works on all the details.”
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Valai brought in another potential starter through the Louisville transfer portal Kanye Walker. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Walker played sparingly for the Cardinals last season, but immediately stood out during his first spring practice in Norman. He’s raw, but his potential as a physical, explosive corner seems limitless.
“Kani is a hard-working dude,” Valai said. “His thinking is the right way. He fights and is focused in everything he does. He is very deliberate in everything he does. Basically what we want Kani to do is, if you’re a big corner, play hard. If you’re physical, be physical.”
Valai has another corner who actually has more experience than Washington or Graham, but a senior Jayden Davis sometimes struggles with consistency. Davis played in all 14 games in 2019, then started the first five games of 2020 before Washington came up. He started four of the first six games last season as the coaching staff tried out then-rookies Latrell McCutchin and Billy Bowman as well as transfer Lawrence Key before Washington returns from injury.
Davis isn’t as big or as physical as some of the Sooners’ other corners, so Valai spent part of the spring working with him on his mental approach to the position.
“Work ahead, move, roll, and just give yourself a better chance in the game by playing checkers instead of checkers,” Valai said. “So JD’s really working on that as well and responding to what he needs to do on the field.”
There is also Joshua Eatonwho played in 15 games as a reserve and now enters his junior season with a career-high seven tackles.
“Good length, good size,” Valai said. “He also made some good plays with the ball. But the same thing for him is understanding “what is my responsibility in the conversation” and he gets better at that too. So he’s grown up.”
Valai also added a senior transfer CJ Colden, who was a three-year starter at Wyoming and led the team last year with 902 total snaps en route to second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors. Colden, who could also play other positions, had 67 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups in 2021.
Valai in the spring also mentioned “a person like Kendall Dennis” about making plays in practice and still “needs to work on the details,” but clearly likes what he sees.
The Sooners add two outstanding freshmen from Tulsa to the depth chart in 2022. Gentry Williams (5-11, 170) and Jaden Rowe (6-2, 217) will likely need time to develop their game at the Division I level, but both have promising potential and should get a long look on special teams this year and will likely compete for starting snaps next year .
“We’re more than three guys,” Valai said. “Everybody eats and works.”