Over the last few seasons, Oklahoma has become synonymous with two things: absolutely electrifying offense and absolutely putrid defense.
According to SoonerStats.com, the last three seasons have been the three worst defensive seasons in Oklahoma’s history in total defensive yards allowed, with 2018 being the worst in Sooner history at over 6,000 total yards.
Last year felt like a tipping point for Oklahoma’s defense. After an upset lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl, a game in which the Sooner defense allowed 48 points and over 500 yards to the Longhorns, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was fired mid-season.
Stoops had great success at Oklahoma in the early 2000s when the Sooner defense was one of the best in the country, even claiming a national title in 2000 holding Florida State’s high-powered offense completely off the board. But, in 2016, ’17, and ’18 the defense had hit an all-time low that even the Heisman heroics of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray couldn’t overcome.
“It became time for a change in our program, and that happens sometimes in football, but we cannot lose sight of the accomplishments Mike had at Oklahoma,” Lincoln Riley said last October after Stoops was let go.
After Ruffin McNeill served as the interim for the remainder of the season with essentially no improvement, Riley and Athletic Director Joe Castiglione made the move to bring in Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
Grinch taking on the project of trying to fix OU’s defense is certainly a daunting task, but it is one that he said he is ready for and was too good to pass up.
“This is a unique opportunity at one of the premier institutions under elite leadership,” Grinch said after being hired in January. “Oklahoma is in the top one percent. There’s no faking it in this business. You’re either it or you’re not. Oklahoma is one of those programs.”
Now looking at 2019, is there actually reason to believe the Sooner defense is going to be all that much better? Let’s look at the positives and negatives heading into the new season:
Positive: Kenneth Murray
A big reason to be optimistic about the defense in 2019 is that arguably the single best defensive player in the Big 12 resides in Norman. Murray was named the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year and will undoubtedly be the anchor and leader of the defense just as he was a year ago. Murray made a big jump from year one to year two, so it seems reasonable to think he’ll make another big leap in year three to being a clear NFL-caliber player and one of the best defensive players in the country.
Negative: Corners are still undersized
One of the most glaring and obvious issues for the OU defense last year was the secondary constantly being overmatched by the big and powerful receivers of the Big 12. It was already going to be a challenge with Tre Brown and Tre Norwood returning as the primary corners, but now with Norwood being ruled out for the season with an injury, a lot of pressure is going to fall on senior Parnell Motley. Motley has showed flashes making big plays here and there as has Brown, but it does not change the fact that when they are going against bigger receivers, like Collin Johnson of Texas perhaps, they are going to have some serious problems.
Positive: Brendan Radley-Hiles
I think most people would agree that Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles had a bit of an underwhelming first year with the Sooners. He was extremely hyped up and received a huge cheer in the lineup introductions of the season opener, and he was expected to be a big contributor right away. Despite his disappointing freshman campaign, there is reason to believe Bookie is going to be a lot better in year two as he seems to be a great fit in the new Alex Grinch scheme. If Radley-Hiles can make the big step to being the premier player that he looks capable of being, that is a HUGE pickup for the defensive secondary.
Negative: Big-time recruits are coming, but they aren’t here yet
Riley and Grinch made extremely impressive headway on the recruiting trail, bringing in top tier defensive players for the years ahead. But, obviously, those guys won’t be out there yet. The players on defense are not guys that Alex Grinch hand-picked as ones he wanted, so his scheme may not be a perfect fit in year one. There are certainly players that are going to mold into it well, but with all these players having been brought in by Mike Stoops to play a different style of defense, it seems likely there are going to be some growing pains in 2019.
Positive: Offense should give the D some more rest
The defense has been quite poor the last few seasons on their own – no doubt about that. But it certainly has not helped that under Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, the offense would frequently put up touchdowns in around a minute or less. With Jalen Hurts, the offense should be a little more methodical with a more featured run game. Also, there is not really a Dede Westbrook or a Marquise Brown extreme deep threat that are going throw up an 80-yard touchdown and put the defense right back out there. CeeDee Lamb and others are great receivers, but not the same model as a true downfield burner. Alex Grinch’s squad shouldn’t have to live on the field quite as much as the ones before, which can only help.
Negative: Defensive line is still unproven
There are some talented players on the defensive line such as senior Neville Gallimore and stud sophomore Ronnie Perkins, but the line has been wildly inconsistent the last few years. Teams have been able to run the ball mostly with ease and, perhaps more importantly, pressure on the quarterback has been severely lacking. In 2018, Oklahoma had just 28 sacks in 14 games, tied for 73rd most sacks per game in the country. Getting pressure on the quarterback would really help the secondary out a great deal and help force some turnovers, another department where Oklahoma has really struggled in.
There are clearly reasons to be optimistic about the OU defense in 2019, but there are at least just as many reasons to expect more of the same struggles from recent years. Just how much of an impact Grinch can have in the short-term as he tries to build up the unit into the quality level that it once had remains to be seen.
The new-look defense will get a big test right away in the September 1st season opener. Coming to Norman are the Houston Cougars led by new head coach Dana Holgerson and one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in D’Eriq King.