CINCINNATI — Everyone saw the interception. Most probably missed what Key Lawrence did after it Saturday afternoon at Nippert Stadium.
It was still a 10-3 Oklahoma lead in the second quarter when the senior safety swooped in at the goal line to pick off the first of Emory Jones’ two interceptions in the Sooners’ 20-6 win over Cincinnati.
Lawrence celebrated his second pick of the season with a stare into the Bearcats’ student section and a chest bump from linebacker Danny Stutsman. Then he shot a beeline to the OU bench, planted himself in front of the section of traveling Sooners fans and pointed to something in front of him.
It could have been mistaken for a wave to a loved one in the crowd. In truth, it was just Lawrence’s way of letting the defense know their job wasn’t done yet.
“I was pointing to the tent telling everyone, ‘Let’s get back to work. The game’s not over,’” Lawrence told Sellout Crowd following the Week 4 win. “It was just another stepping stone. I was telling them to come on and get back to work.”
Lawrence is back to work in 2023. So is the OU defense.
Lawrence’s latest standout performance, which included three tackles, came on the day the 16th-ranked Sooners held Cincinnati (2-2) to 141 rushing yards, forced Jones into 19 incompletions and blanked the Bearcats in the red zone, delivering another convincing defensive showing to propel OU to 4-0 in its 2023 Big 12 opener.
It’s the freshest evidence that the Sooners have perhaps turned a corner on defense.
Clear through four games is that OU has received a charge from newcomers such as Dasan McCullough, Reggie Pearson and the cast of reinforcements rotating in on the defensive line.
Yet of the 11 Sooners who started Saturday, eight were a part of OU’s leaky defense; the turnaround has been defined as much by new faces as the contributions of returners such as Isaiah Coe, Danny Stutsman, Woodi Washington and Billy Bowman.
Lawrence, the former Tennessee transfer, is among that group, too. Finally operating in a system that feels familiar, he’s playing some of the best football of his career at the right time for the Sooners.
“Being inside out is where I’ve seen the most growth (in him),” Brent Venables said Saturday. “His knowledge base has certainly improved. His fundamentals have improved. He’s become a really good leader and a great teammate. He lets you coach him hard … he’s an example of those returners playing better.”
Lawrence’s 14 tackles after Week 4 are tied for second among OU defensive backs. His pair of interceptions lead the team. Of the Sooners’ 10 forced turnovers, Lawrence has accounted for three.
The benefit of age is one component in Lawrence’s bright start this fall a third of the way through his fourth college season. Stability is another piece. For the first time in nearly a decade, Lawrence is playing under the same head coach and in the same system in consecutive seasons.
Lawrence experienced turnover in every offseason while he became a four-star talent and the top prospect in the state of Tennessee at Nashville’s Ensworth High School. He brought more change upon himself when he left the Volunteers and transferred to OU after his freshman season in 2020. Another transition came in 2021 when Venables arrived to replace Lincoln Riley.
The simple security of playing under the same head coach, and in turn the same position coach in the same system, has been a game-changer.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Lawrence told reporters earlier this month. “I feel a lot more confident. I can just fly around.”
The words he uses to describe the feeling echoes similar comments of other OU defenders who have made strides in Year 2 under Venables.
“It’s just having the confidence of being in something twice,” Lawrence said. “You know what you messed up on. You know how to fix it. You know what’s going on at all times.”
Knowledge breeds assurance and freedom. This fall, it’s helped Lawrence become the Sooners’ turnover-producer-in-chief in September.
It was his downward punch that knocked the ball from Jaylan Knighton’s hands in the second half of the Sooners’ win over SMU. Lawrence’s first interception of the season came at Tulsa as part of OU’s five-pick turnover party.
His interception Saturday, when he jumped in front of the end zone throw intended for Cincinnati’s Xzavier Henderson, was another product of the heightened understanding he’s working with now.
“It’s just preparation,” he said. “A lot of it is reading keys that bring us to the ball and then we just have to play defense. Just doing my job.”
Saturday’s win took the Sooners to 4-0 and 1-0 in conference play. That’s something OU couldn’t do a year ago. Afterward, Lawrence retreated into what has become a common theme with the Sooners lately, emphasizing that OU hasn’t forgotten last fall’s tailspin and knows the road in front of it.
But things do feel different, even in the small moments.
Lawrence was speaking to reporters postgame standing against a wall in the stadium tunnel while the team bus waited outside. As he answered questions, Coe, the veteran defensive lineman, walked by and shouted “Okay, 12,” before breaking into laughter, calling Lawrence by uniform number.
“You see how we’re just having fun again?” Lawrence said as Coe kept moving. “We’re just trying to bring that energy back to OU.”
Indeed, the Sooners are having fun again on defense. So is its veteran safety, who’s relishing another year in the system.