NORMAN — Oklahoma football fans have good reason to temper their optimism regarding the Sooner defense this season.
In last year’s season opener against what was supposed to be a dynamic Florida Atlantic offense, OU’s defense was dominant. Facing offensive wiz Lane Kiffin, the Sooners yielded just 132 rushing yards, 192 passing yards and held the Owls to 4-of-15 third-down conversions and collected two quarterback sacks and an interception.
Then the following week, OU’s first-team defense gave up an opening touchdown drive but then nothing else against UCLA and offensive mastermind Chip Kelly. The Bruins managed just 129 yards rushing and 254 passing, and most of that came against reserves in the fourth quarter.
A month later, Mike Stoops was out of work and Lincoln Riley was looking for a new defensive coordinator.
So yeah, Sooner Nation is rightfully reserved with its enthusiasm about how the defense performs in the 2019 season opener Sunday night against Houston.
“Game 1, it doesn’t matter if they go well or don’t go well, one thing you can guarantee is it’s going to be complete overreaction by the public on every part of it,” Riley said Monday during the first of his weekly news conferences. “That’s just the nature of the beast that we deal with.
“For us, Houston is certainly, I think fair to say, more of a challenge offensively than what we saw in our nonconference last year. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, especially with the quarterback. He’s a game-changer for them.”
Like FAU and UCLA, Houston is run by an offensive genius in Dana Holgorsen. But unlike the Owls and Bruins, the Cougars bring with them a dangerous and experienced quarterback to run their up-tempo offense in D’Eriq King.
Last season King threw for 2,982 yards and rushed for 674 and accounted for 50 touchdowns before an injury ended his season. He completed 63.5 percent of his passes with 36 TDs and just six interceptions.
“A fantastic player,” Riley said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He’s certainly a dual-threat guy that can make all the throws but certainly can scare you with what he can do with his legs as well. Trying to limit him in some form or fashion will certainly be a key to the game for us defensively. He’s fantastic. He could play just about anywhere.”
Riley said like everyone else, he’s eager to see how new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s defense reacts in its debut. When he was hired after a year at Ohio State, Grinch became the highest-paid assistant in OU history at $1.4 million. But Riley and his coaching staff will be evaluating a lot more than Houston’s points and total yards.
“How did we communicate?” Riley said. “That’s going to be very important against a group like this, who we know has the ability to go up-tempo. How do we tackle? That’s always a game one deal for anybody and everybody. Anybody that watched that (Florida-Miami) game the other night can see the value in that. And then I think how do we fly around and, with that, to create turnovers or negative plays. That’s been a big emphasis for us and that’s been a big emphasis in bringing this group here that we did.”
Riley said there isn’t much fear of a “here we go again” collapse if Houston does get going offensively.
“Different time,” Riley said. “I’ve talked about from Day 1 with Alex, the reason why I wanted to hire him was, most importantly, the mentality that he helps instill in our defensive players. That mentality, that wasn’t all coach speak. That’s for real-life situations and those comes up in the games. Tough things are going to happen. I don’t care who you are or how great you are on one side of the ball or not, tough things are going to happen. Part of your mentality is how you respond to those things.”
Players have certainly noticed a shift on this year’s defense — on both sides of the ball.
“Coach Grinch has just been relentless,” said defensive tackle Neville Gallimore. “You know, this is a coach that, again, has high expectations for us and wants us to be at our best and I have that ‘Speed D’ mindset. It’s an effort-based defense and just have the opportunity to play fast and play for each other.”
“I remember the first day of spring ball; obviously, you’re not in pads,” said tight end Grant Calcaterra. “Their big thing is harping on stripping the ball. I’ve never been more beat up after a practice than after my first practice this last spring.
“Those guys are trying to be more physical in practice — all 11 guys to the ball. They’ve been more physical and faster. I’m excited for them to show it (on Sunday).”
Riley compared Grinch’s opener to his own as offensive coordinator in 2015. That year the Sooners didn’t begin to dominate until midseason.
“We weren’t very good there in the beginning,” Riley said. “I’m not saying that’s where we’re going to be right now. I think we have plenty capability to be pretty good right now. But it’s a process. When it’s Year 1, it’s going to be about consistent improvement. You certainly want to go get off to a great start.”
“I expect us to play well,” Riley said, “but I also know to build this thing the way we want to build it, it’s going to be a process.”
Riley said training camp provided plenty of optimism for the coaching staff. Simply put, he said he likes what he’s seen.
“The way we’ve flown around the football and the way we’ve aggressively attacked the ball are probably at the top of my list right now,” Riley said. “I love the mentality our group has. It’s getting ready to get tested in some different ways. It’s going to have to continue to grow and adapt. I like that.
“There’s a sense of a brotherhood on that side of the ball this year. I’m not saying it was missing the last few years, but I feel like maybe that group might be bonded a little bit tighter this year. That’s always a great thing. I’m excited to see how that translates in our play.”
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.