NORMAN — If Mike Stoops is ever going to get a handle on coordinating a defense in the Big 12 Conference, it has to start up front.
And if it’s going to happen, it could happen this year.
Just ask head coach Lincoln Riley.
“I’m excited,” Riley said Monday during his weekly press conference ahead of Saturday’s season opener versus Florida Atlantic. “The personnel is obviously a factor. I’ve talked about that a bunch as far as recruiting and adding more talent and depth there. I’m excited to see how it shows up on Saturday, but I really feel good about it.”
Riley’s optimism may be misplaced, or it may be spot-on. He declined to reveal a depth chart in Monday’s usual pregame notes, but the smart money is on junior Amani Bledsoe and junior Kenneth Mann to line up at end and junior Neville Gallimore to start inside in the Sooners’ three-man front, backed up by senior Marquise Overton, junior Dillon Faaumatau, sophomore Tyreece Lott and freshman Ronnie Perkins.
There are no All-Americans in that group. No first-round draft picks.
But if the Sooner defensive line can just hold the line of scrimmage on run plays and get just a little bit more push on pass plays, everything changes: the linebackers and safeties can roam freely to patrol the ground, and the safeties and corners won’t but under constant stress against the pass.
At least in training camp, Riley said, the defensive line has looked different.
“Probably the thing I feel best about our defensive line is the overall mentality of the group right now is different,” Riley said. “Us as a staff now being together a full year, them getting a full year of coach (Calvin) Thibodeaux and coach (Ruffin) McNeill. They’re together and being able to take the best from those guys. And then we’ve got some young leaders in that group — Kenneth Mann, Amani Bledsoe, Dillon Faaumatau — those guys have really kind of assumed that group and really taken over. I just think mentality-wise, we’re in a great place.”
Asked to elaborate, Riley recalled his feelings about how the offensive line progressed after his first season as offensive coordinator in 2015.
“Part of it comes from having the same offensive line coach for the last few years,” Riley said. “Part of it comes from having some pretty strong leadership. Even though my first year here we weren’t ultra-talented on the offensive line, we had some strong leadership and we had some good, solid players that were seniors. We had some good, young guys like Orlando (Brown) and Dru (Samia) that were playing that were still puppies and still trying to figure it out. But overall the mentality of the group made them continually improve, where I feel like that’s something we’ve been trying to build with our defensive line.
“You can just kind of feel it when you’re around them all the time. I think it’s (important), how do they respond to a bad practice? How do they respond to a bad play? Are the coaches having to do all the leading or are there some alpha dogs in the group that will bring the group up? Particularly when things aren’t going well and help get guys back on track, or guys that maybe when you can’t be around them in the summer are making guys do the extra things that are setting the tone when coaches can’t be there.
“When you get that going in a group and you keep that going — maybe in years where you’re not the most talented — you still have a chance to play well. Then when you are very talented, you’ve got a chance to play elite.”
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.