NORMAN — No one was happier for Brendan Radley-Hiles’ sudden success on Saturday night than his Oklahoma teammates.
“Everybody feels good for him,” linebacker DaShaun White said after Radley-Hiles — “Bookie” to just about everyone — recovered a fumble for the Sooners’ first takeaway of the season and then returned an interception for a touchdown in a 70-14 victory over South Dakota.
“Especially because he knows that we all know that he had a tough year last year,” White said. “Just how much he’s put into it this offseason, just seeing him really get his chance and make big plays, I mean, it makes us all feel good.”
“I think it’s just a testament to how resilient he is as an individual,” safety Pat Fields said on Monday. I think that’s the biggest thing right there is the word resilient. He’s been resilient throughout his whole process, throughout his whole life. Being a guy that’s undersized, you know, so many things that people could stack against him, he’s just been resilient his whole life.”
Radley-Hiles came in last year as a five-star prospect and was in the starting lineup when the season began, but he experienced extreme highs and lows.
“I would say pretty typical for a freshman,” head coach Lincoln Riley said Monday. “A lot of times you can get in position to make some of the plays, but you don’t always make all of them as a true freshman.”
In many ways, however, Radley-Hiles was no typical freshman. He not only came into college football with a lot of hype, he often seemed to perpetuate that hype himself. And all this with a stature of 5-foot-9, 180 pounds.
College football can be a big man’s game, and Radley-Hiles frequently strutted around like a terrier: tough, yes, and confident, maybe to a fault, but too many times just overmatched. He needed to grow — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
When college football starts going sideways for young players, it can be hard to get things straight again. Some never do. Radley-Hiles eventually got benched later in the 2018 season.
He certainly looks like he’s on the right path now.
Riley said “it can be” hard for a 5-star prospect to try to live up to expectations.
“Last year’s a great learning experience for him,” Riley said. “Any guy that’s extremely highly recruited you can put in this category, too: you learn pretty quick that the outside opinions and all the hype and all that doesn’t really matter. You’ve just got to go play. And I don’t think it was a negative thing with Bookie. … Was there some of him last year at times trying to live up to that? Maybe. But I don’t think it came from a bad place. I think it came from a competitive place. And I think he’s matured some. He’s just in a better place mentally.”
It’s early, yes, but Radley-Hiles attributes much of his success so far in 2019 to his new defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch.
“Coach Grinch’s defense is very simple,” Radley-Hiles said. “You maybe have three jobs total on a play call. And if you understand his defense, you can go from plan A to B to C very quickly. Once you operate at that speed, you can just play downhill and just make plays.”
The rest of it has been on Radley-Hiles.
“Just trusting myself, honestly,” he said. “I would see plays, you could say, last year, but I wouldn’t always believe it, almost, because it was so, like, true. But really, this year, I can just shoot and make plays.”
Grinch said he tries to find a balance between tinkering and experimenting with Radley-Hiles’ nickel back position and making sure he plays within the confines of the defense.
“From a man coverage standpoint, from a blitzing standpoint, from a zone standpoint,” Grinch said. “ … In 2019 college football, with the RPO game, the run-pass option stuff, that overhang guy out there to the field, there’s a lot of stresses to you defensively in terms of how you use him — how it relates to how the offense tries to attack you. Some of it is our personnel but also how offenses attempt to attack you in space. There is some level to that that continues to go on.”
Radley-Hiles simplified those sentiments.
“He gives me a lot of freedom, honestly,” Radley-Hiles said, “but there’s certain rules and regulations to playing that position. But for the most part, he gives me a lot of freedom to use my instincts and just play football.
“I’m a little bit closer to the ball now,” Radley-Hiles continued. “I was playing strong safety last year. But really it’s just playing a lot of different techniques at the same time. I’m playing a lot of man (coverage), a lot of zone. Making sure I can play off the edge, play D-line technique. I’m in a gap situation like a linebacker. I’m in a lot of different positions, a lot of different predicaments. But it’s really a great opportunity for myself to take.”
As Radley-Hiles battled a sore shoulder and freshman jitters and the hype machine last year, he developed a reputation as someone who wanted to hit, but not necessarily tackle. He ranked 12th on the team with 39 total tackles in 2018. He’s fourth so far this year with seven. He’s also missed fewer tackles and has been more disruptive — hence the two turnovers.
Part of that is scheme and the new position, but part of it is a new mindset.
“I think he’s a little more clear-minded right now,” Riley said. “I think Alex has done a good job with him, and I think he’s just mentally more ready to make the plays and to finish them. He did a lot of good things for us last year, and he was in position to do a lot more. But that experience is very valuable. I would say that, combined with coaching that he’s gotten from Alex and the guys right now, has made for a good combination.”
Grinch said he didn’t harp much on last season when he got to town. He wants his players’ minds to be on the future, not the past.
“The message for him is to be confident but not comfortable,” Grinch said. “That’s something not just for him but all these guys in terms of having some level of success. They should gain confidence from that. But this game is hard. This game sneaks up on you if you allow yourself to get too comfortable out there.”
Said Fields, “What Bookie and a lot of other football players go through every day from a mental standpoint is extremely difficult. In the sense we’ll never be able to be perfect no matter — like, Bookie made two turnovers, but there’s still people on Twitter or whatever criticizing him, saying, ‘Oh, he’s still not that good or whatever,’ or whatever it is.
“He’s been aggressive and he’s attacked everything straightforward. I think it’s really just a testimony to all the work he’s put in this offseason, how much he’s matured, how much he’s grown as an individual and how much he’s grown as a person.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.