NORMAN — It only takes a cursory look at the Oklahoma defense over the last decade to identify the Sooners’ greatest shortcomings.
It’s the defensive line.
OU hasn’t had a first-team All-American defensive lineman for 10 years now. The last was Gerald McCoy in 2009. Good defensive line play begets good play from both the linebackers and the defensive backs. With monsters in the middle, linebackers can flow freely to make tackles or blitz the quarterback. With beasts resetting the line of scrimmage, corners and safeties don’t have to cover their receivers nearly as long.
OU’s last defensive tackles taken in the NFL Draft were Jordan Phillips (second round in 2015) and Stacy McGee (sixth round in 2013), and neither of them were maximized during their time in Norman. The last defensive ends drafted were Charles Tapper (fourth round in 2016) and Geneo Grissom (third round in 2015).
Of that group, only Tapper (in 2013 and 2015) earned a spot on the All-Big 12 first team. Since McCoy, the Sooners have had just three defensive linemen named first-team All-Big 12, but only one (Tapper) in the last seven years.
If Oklahoma’s defense is going to truly turn around and become good again — hold off for now on great, just try to get good — then that has to change.
And this might be the year.
Through two games, Oklahoma’s down linemen have been disruptive. Maybe not Gerald McCoy, but they’ve arguably played at a higher level than any time in the last five years.
The sample size is small and the opposition could hardly be considered elite. But through two games, there have been signs from the Sooners’ starting rotation of Ronnie Perkins, Neville Gallimore and Jalen Redmond that the OU d-line could be turning a corner.
The 6-foot-3, 248-pound Perkins, a sophomore from St. Louis, is a traditional 4-3 defensive end and has flashed plenty of brilliance in his two seasons, both pressuring the quarterback and chasing down ballcarriers.
Gallimore, a 6-2, 302-pound senior noseguard from Ontario, Canada, has been effective at breaking through the line of scrimmage, disrupting plays and taking on double-teams.
And Redmond, a 6-3, 266-pound redshirt freshman defensive end from Midwest City who sat out last year after life-threatening blood clots in his lungs, has really taken to a shift inside. He’s a defensive tackle in Alex Grinch’s 3-3-5 alignment, but he’s really an end who plays with a linebacker on his flank.
Things could change this week when the Sooners take on 0-2 UCLA — OU’s first Power 5 opponent and first road game.
But against Houston and South Dakota, Grinch was impressed with Redmond.
“Well you just see the size and speed mix,” Grinch said. “That combination is unique in what we do defensively, and we try so hard to get the best players out there, the most athletic guys without compromising too much from a size standpoint — and he’s got mass to him, so you’re not.
“(I) just see a guy that can be effective in the run game and also affect the passer. Again, he’s only scratched the surface. You wouldn’t describe him as good yet. He’s made some highlights, and that’s not a negative, it’s just the reality of him missing all the time that he has. But, just a major jump from week one to week two. One, from a knowledge standpoint. Two … just that he was a better practice player last week.”
Gallimore also made a big change — not a position switch, but dropping 30 pounds to be quicker and more athletic.
“I just see a guy that’s getting ready to take off,” Grinch said. “Obviously, you know, the first two games, there’s a productive game one. I think I see a lot of quick game in game two when he played about 25 snaps. Seeing the caused fumble, and you just see a guy in the backfield consistently and that’s something that he’s got to be for us.
“His best game’s still out there. I think he can be a dominant player for us up front — and I wouldn’t say that about every single guy we’ve got. So that’s high praise. But he has that ability. I think he has that expectation. And we need it to come around fast.”
Perkins leads the front line with seven total tackles, including two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack along with one forced fumble. Redmond has five tackles and a team-best 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. Gallimore has four tackles with a sack and a forced fumble.
Like Redmond, backup LaRon Stokes has switched from traditional d-end to a 3-3 tackle. Stokes, a 6-4, 269-pound junior from Tulsa (via NEO) and Redmond have traded off at the position, and he’s learned on the fly since Grinch arrived.
“Technique is different,” Stokes said. “Some of the things you can do outside you don’t normally do inside because it is different. … They’re definitely bigger in there. Gotta keep my weight up, like coach Tibbs (Calvin Thibodeaux) is telling me. That’s the main thing, and play fast and keep my pads low.”
Head coach Lincoln Riley said before the season that defensive line was the single most intriguing position to him. He knew it was the position that had to make the greatest improvement, but also knew it might be the position with the most potential.
“A lot of guys mentally are in a good place,” Riley said. “I think they’re starting to understand the scheme and understanding the way we want them to play and the way we know they can play. I think there’s a good sense of camaraderie with that unit right now, which I think that’s important because it pushes you on.
“The competitiveness keeps it fresh. We’re playing more bodies than we have defensively in a long time. I think guys are seeing they’re gonna get an opportunity and if they go produce they’re gonna continue to get more and more. So we said Day 1 it was ‘trying to change the culture’ mentality. I can’t say it’s changed completely, I don’t know what that point is. But it’s moving in a positive directions.”
Riley acknowledges there’s a long way to go — both for the season and for the defense — but says the defense in general has just looked different so far.
“Mindset. Intangibles. It’s toughness. Fundamentals,” Riley said. “It’s really everything other than scheme. You’ve got a scheme to tell you what gap to go to or what guy to cover or when to blitz or what zone to drop into, but there’s so much to it other than that. I think to be great on any side of the ball you have to marry those things in together. It’s got to all fit.
“We’re progressing on the scheme, but the more important thing to me is the mentality. Do we play with the edge, the aggression, the physicality, the fundamentals that a great defense should play with? And I see us doing that more and more right now. Certainly not there but we’re doing it more and more.”
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.