NORMAN, Okla. (AP) After years of searching, Gabe Lynn has finally found a home in Oklahoma's secondary.
The senior's comfort level at free safety is a key reason why No. 14 Oklahoma (2-0) has allowed only seven points combined in wins over Louisiana-Monroe and West Virginia. The Sooners will look for a third straight strong defensive effort Saturday when they host in-state rival Tulsa (1-1).
"Gabe Lynn is really starting to kind of come into his own as a player," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said of the Big 12 Conference defensive player of the week.
It's been quite the journey getting there for Lynn, though. A star at Tulsa-area prep football powerhouse Jenks, Lynn arrived at Oklahoma in 2009 and promptly redshirted, causing him to think of transferring. He played as a backup cornerback in eight games in 2010, recovering a fumble in a win over Florida State, and was again a backup in 2011.
Last season, he was the designated "nickelback" in a defensive scheme that, late in the season, included six or seven defensive backs. The Sooners' defense crumbled down the stretch, giving up tons of yards and points in narrow wins over West Virginia and Oklahoma State before a crushing 41-13 loss to Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel in the Cotton Bowl.
As the Sooners retooled their defensive scheme during the spring, Oklahoma coaches moved the 6-foot, 199-pound Lynn to free safety and he's thrived in his new role. Against West Virginia last Saturday, he had a fumble recovery, an interception and three tackles in a 16-7 win.
"I think it's the right position for him," Stoops said. "He's very comfortable and understands our defense and the nuances and it helps him make plays. He made some huge plays the other night."
Lynn said the transition to playing safety was a smooth one.
"Playing every position back there in the secondary, I know what everybody is doing, so that's definitely helped.
"I just like being involved in almost every play. At corner or nickel, a lot of times you're worried about your guy, so it's good to get out there and play football with some space and be able to see everything."
Lynn has been acutely aware of the criticism faced by both the defense as a whole and him in particular, noting that when he made a mistake while playing in the secondary, it was more obvious to the average fan because of the one-on-one nature of the position.
After the way last season ended, Lynn said current Oklahoma players "took a lot of heat from past players," something he said has motivated the Sooners so far in 2013.
"I ain't going to say who it was, but I just know some people said - they're not the only ones, some people in the media or fans - they called us soft," Lynn said. "Quite frankly, we were soft last year. That's not something we want to be known as is being soft on defense. We talked about that multiple times. That's on us. We were pretty soft last year. Last year's over. We're just looking forward to this year and we want to put out a different defense."
Cornerback Zack Sanchez said Lynn has taken the criticism he's received and used it to fuel his play on the field.
"Oh, man," Sanchez said. "Gabe turned into an animal. You know, in spring, he made plays and in the fall camp, he's just - I don't know what happened to Gabe. To have him playing like that is really good. I'm so proud of Gabe. He's like a big brother to me, so to see him playing like that makes me feel really good."
One of the biggest differences this season - aside from a switch to an alignment with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs - is the communication level among defenders. Lynn plays a key role in facilitating good communication on the field, head coach Bob Stoops said.
"The (linebackers) and safeties are always talking on what the stunt is, who's coming down, which safety is coming down, that kind of thing," Bob Stoops said. "It's the safety's job to communicate with the corners and make sure they're on the same page."
Bob Stoops said Lynn has "become a strong leader for us and kind of the quarterback back there at the safety position. . That's been good."