NORMAN, Okla. – Zack Sanchez entered last season as an unknown, one of many young players on a team looking to rebuild after a 2012 season in which the Sooners' defense was routinely torched by opposing offenses.
Sanchez, a redshirt freshman, emerged from preseason practice a year ago as a starting cornerback and steadily improved throughout a season that was capped by a star turn in a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Only a sophomore, Sanchez now is considered a leader of a defense that is being touted as one of the nation's best.
The confident Sanchez has shown the relaxed poise of a veteran during the opening days of practice for the 2014 season, which will begin Aug. 30 against Louisiana Tech.
"We're just a lot wiser," said fellow sophomore Dominique Alexander, a linebacker who — like Sanchez — was called upon to play a major role early in his career. "We've seen a lot. Coming back, nothing is new to us, so we won't have any surprises or anything like that. We'll just be able to play.
"The coaches trust us and put a lot on us. They expect a lot from us both as individuals. We've just got to produce for them."
Few knew who Sanchez was when he lined up as a starter in the 2013 season opener against Louisiana-Monroe. But he quickly made his presence known, recording six tackles in early season wins over West Virginia and Tulsa, then breaking up four passes as the Sooners held off TCU 20-17 in what proved to be a defensive struggle.
After recording a career-high eight tackles in a win over Texas Tech, he returned his first career interception 74 yards for a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown in a 41-31 win at Kansas State.
Sanchez's second interception proved almost as important. Late in the first half of the Sugar Bowl, he picked off a slant pass from Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, that had been intended for Amari Cooper, and returned it 43 yards to the Alabama 13. One play later, Sterling Shepard scored to put the Sooners up 31-17, and Oklahoma eventually won 45-31.
Of course, Sanchez also had his frustrations as a freshman. Before the interception against Kansas State, he had been the primary victim as K-State receiver Tyler Lockett rolled up 206 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.
Against Alabama, Sanchez missed a pair of tackles and struggled early to keep up with the Crimson Tide receivers before his interception. Sanchez said Tuesday that "just being more physical and not missing tackles" has been an offseason focus for him.
Alexander noted that Sanchez hasn't let mistakes keep him down.
"He's a lockdown corner," Alexander said. "He can be one of the top corners in the country any day. He can turn it on, as you saw last year. He can get beat on a play and come right back as if nothing ever happened. He's a great player and he's gotten bigger and stronger, and he's faster, as well."
Sanchez said the experience he gained from being given loads of responsibility last season will be helpful going forward and that he relishes the chance to be a team leader.
"It feels good," he said. "I don't see it as much pressure, but just an opportunity. I like to maximize on every opportunity that I can and just be an example for the young guys."
Sanchez — and a good number of his teammates — have been vocal in expressing their desire that the Sooners be considered an elite defense. That would be a sea change from the end of the 2012 campaign, when many wondered if Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops had lost his touch.
"We feel like we're still getting talked about (as) not having the best defense," Sanchez said. "Until that point — even when we get to that point — we're always going to be hungry."
Sanchez said with potential stars such as Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Alexander and Quentin Hayes, the Oklahoma defense soon could be feared again by foes.
"Those guys are making plays every week," Sanchez said. "I think it's a place to come if you are a defensive guy with how fast we play and how spread out we play and how we attack offenses. I think a lot of recruits like that."