Parnell Motley has tried a little bit of everything.
Oklahoma’s most experienced cornerback recognizes his career has contained ups and downs. Highs like grabbing five career interceptions and lows like knowing four of them all came during the month of September, not the season’s crucial stretch.
Highs like making 25 career starts, lows like being benched mid-game during a shootout at Oklahoma State in 2017.
Motley was once a heavy trash-talker, but at some point, maybe as he tried to ground himself, got away from that. Now he’s back to it.
“I tell myself I’ve got to get back to playing my game, and some of that is just trash talking and things like that … Not being a freaking robot,” Motley said recently. “Just being myself.”
He has tried, successfully he says, to eliminate distractions off the field. OU coach Lincoln Riley has seen that.
“He hasn’t been a guy who has gotten into trouble,” Riley said, “but he has been a guy that occasionally has had a lot of distractions off the field, things that were under his control that he has to do better and he’s done a great job of that.”
Defensive expectations can change fast in the Big 12, but Motley’s on the ascent again as he approaches midseason. That has helped fuel the OU secondary’s stark turnaround.
Pro Football Focus recognized Motley on Sept. 19 for having surrendered the fewest yards per snap in coverage, at 0.07. That sounds impressive, but OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch remained only interested in the cornerback’s game video.
Yet, Motley’s highlights have also redeemed him. This season he has been responsible for coverage on just one opposing catch beyond 25 yards. In 2018, he was charged with two mishaps alone at Iowa State on 51- and 57-yard touchdowns by receiver Hakeem Butler.
“I think the film suggests that he’s playing at a high level,” Grinch said. “You’ve seen in practice a commitment to technique, coach [Roy] Manning’s done a great job with that group. They obviously have a unique challenge in practice going against [elite receivers]. I don’t know when the switch flipped in terms of those guys kind of embracing that challenge on a day-to-day basis, but somewhere over the last … sometime in fall camp, there were brighter days where you saw glimpses. I’m not saying they’re successful all day long, but just kind of embracing the challenge.”
Motley’s improvement encapsulates what’s happened across most of OU’s secondary. Its deepest scar left over from 2018 was ranking 129th nationally in pass defense.
So far in 2019, it has surrendered four passes longer than 25 yards, including just two in the past three games. No completions have gone beyond 30 yards.
“Even the ones that have been completed on us for the most part have been pretty contested,” Riley said.
OU ranks 27th in pass defense ahead of Saturday’s game at Kansas.
Better coverage has more benefits than just the optics that come with surrendering 190 yards passing per game, compared to 294 a year ago. The most eye-opening: Opponents have converted 10 of 51 third downs against the Sooners, who rank second nationally in third-down defense.
Freshman corner Jaden Davis has helped fortify the secondary’s rotation, gaining early attention from PFF for being the nation’s highest-graded cornerback through three games. He also made PFF’s Big 12 defensive team of the week after playing Texas Tech.
Davis’ presence has been invaluable. But if he breaks into the starting lineup, at this point, Motley’s job seems safe.
“We challenged [Motley] pretty heavily after last year,” Riley said. “It was good timing with coach Manning coming in, coach Grinch. He had a chance to wipe the slate clean like everyone else. I think the biggest thing for him has been maturity and consistency both on and off the field.
“He’s grown up. Like a lot of guys, you get to that senior year and all of the sudden, those reps are not infinite anymore. You start thinking this thing is over pretty quick. It’s been kind of a perfect storm for him. All the changes, him being a senior. He deserves the most credit because he’s handled it the right way and we need him to keep doing that.”
Oklahoma at Kansas
When: 11 a.m., Saturday
Place: David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium | Lawrence, Kansas
Records/rankings: AP No. 6/Amway No. 4 OU (4-0, 1-0 Big 12); KU (2-3, 0-2)
Line: OU (-35)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7