A famous college football coach once said, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.” That man was none other than the legendary Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who you have likely heard of at some point in your life as a college football fan. As much as I don’t care for the SEC, this is a man who won 13 SEC titles and six national championships with the Crimson Tide. So, I would say he probably knows what he is talking about just a little, don’t you think?
Last season, the Oklahoma Sooners had one of those offenses that just made you shake your head if you were an opposing coach trying to stop them. They were so good it really wasn’t even fair at times. Between the Heisman winning quarterback (Baker Mayfield), the running backs (Trey Sermon and Rodney Anderson) along with the great offensive line, and of course, the wide outs (Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb), this was a high-powered offensive machine last year. They were first in scoring offense and in total yards last season in the Big 12. In fact, they lead the nation in total offense last season. Yeah, they were damn good to say the least. But as we all know, if you can’t play defense then your chances of winning it all are about as slim as Kansas winning a national title in football (Sorry Jayhawk fans).
After the 2016 season, there were some serious questions about the Sooners defense under defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. At that time, his brother Bob was still the man in charge in Norman, but it all changed one day back in June of 2017 as Bob announced he would retire and step down as the Sooners head coach. To the surprise of some, then 33-year-old Lincoln Riley was announced as the new man in charge. Not long after being promoted, Lincoln was faced with many decisions and new responsibilities now being the head of a blueblood program. One of those decisions was if he should retain defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, the brother of the man who basically handed him the keys to Oklahoma and gave him his first shot as a coordinator at a power five program. Mike Stoops was once a highly-respected defensive coordinator, especially back in the early 2000’s when Oklahoma was a defensive power loaded with star talent. After becoming a head coach at Arizona, things went sour and he turned back to what got him there in the first place, being a good defensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. Well, sometimes things aren’t always as easy the second time around and I am afraid that Mike Stoops is learning that the hard way. The question is, is he the guy who can fix this defense? If so, how will he do it?
This article will have a little bit of everything in it. Some good, some bad and some much-needed truth on how this defense can become respectable once again.
Hard to Believe
Everyone and their mother thought the Oklahoma defense was bad and it was…at times. Remember the Ohio State game? The Sooners went into the horseshoe in Columbus and knocked off the mighty Buckeyes of Ohio State. Oklahoma held Ohio State to just 16 points and all was well with this Mike Stoops defense. After, that there were more ups and downs than a roller coaster as the season went on. Then one January night at the Rose Bowl, it all came crashing down as the Sooners gave up 54 points in a double overtime thriller that sent them packing and ending a shot at a national championship. As bad as all this sounds and trust me, it’s not easy for some fans to read, the Sooners improved in 2017 from the 2016 season. Take this in whatever way you want but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I compared stats from the 2016 defense to the 2017 defense.
Rush Defense: 2017-140.7 yards per game 2016- 162.6 yards per game
Pass Defense: 2017-238.4 yards per game 2016- 269.4 yards per game
Sacks By: 2017- 26 2016-25
Red Zone Defense: 2017-87.8% Opponent scoring percentage
2016- 78.3% Opponent scoring percentage
Besides red zone defense (which is crucial, by they way), the 2017 defense was pretty much improved across the board. Was the defense where it needs to be at a powerhouse program like Oklahoma? No, but it was improved from the previous season. It’s not a finished product by any means but at least it’s progress.
At Big 12 Media Days, Lincoln Riley wasn’t the only guy preaching about wanting a championship level defense. In fact, true sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray told me exactly what his idea of what a championship caliber defense was. “Championship defense is a defense that puts fear into the eyes of their opponents. It’s a defense that doesn’t give up a lot of yards or a lot of points. A defense that’s going to intimidate from the jump before we even step on the field and when we do step on the field we are going to bust you in your mouth.” Then when I asked Kenneth what it will take to become a championship level defense he told me ,“You have to have a championship level mindset. You got to have an eat or be eaten type of mindset. Every game we get out there we got to bust somebody in their mouth. When you get 11 guys on the same page all with that mentality, then we will be good.” For Murray, it’s simple. It all starts with the mindset. Before they do anything this season, they must be in the right state of mind to get to where they need to be.
During Lincoln Riley’s press conference at Big 12 Media Days, he was asked about how the defense can get turned around and he came out and simply said, “We got to recruit. We feel like we’re in the process of making a pretty good move there. That’s the first thing I have seen is our talent levels needed to increase and I think we are on our way to doing that. I feel like some of our best talent defensively right now is from our freshmen and sophomore classes. We have good players, don’t get me wrong but our talent level has not been the same as some of the other defenses in the country.”
Go back and look at the 2018 class for the Sooners. According to 247Sports, they were able to grab five defensive players who were ranked inside the top 10 at their position in the entire country (CB Brendan Radley-Hiles, WDE Ronnie Perkins, DT Michael Thompson, SDE Ron Tatum and WDE Jalen Redmond). Look at those five players I just mentioned, four of those guys are defensive lineman. Just like any good defense, it all starts up front. Don’t forget they signed two 4-star outside linebackers in DaShaun White and Nik Bonitto too. Overall this was a top 10 class and no matter who is the defensive coordinator the next few seasons, at this rate talent shouldn’t be an issue moving forward.
It all starts on the line for this defense which has been underwhelming up front the past few seasons. While there is experience coming back with guys like Amani Bledsoe, Marquise Overton and Kenneth Mann, can they take that next step? The same will go for defensive tackles Dillon Faamatau and Neville Gallimore. Who is going to be the guy that others look up to on the defensive line? I wouldn’t be surprised to see some highly touted freshmen like Ronnie Perkins or Jalen Redmond to get some playing time at the end spots. Whether it’s a junior, senior or a freshman, somebody needs to emerge here.
Even though the Sooners lose Obo Okoronkwo and Emmanuel Beal, Kenneth Murray and Caleb Kelly are more than capable of being super stars at linebacker. Both guys have plenty of experience despite being young. Other guys to watch here are Jon-Michael Terry, Levi Draper, Addison Gumbs and Curtis Bolton. I think this group will be just fine this season.
While I feel good about the corner spots (Brendan Radley-Hiles, Tre Norwood and Parnell Motley), the two safety spots worry me. Khalil Haughton, Robert Barnes, Patrick Fields and Chanse Sylvie will all be fighting for playing time here. Haughton, Barnes and Sylvie all have some experience, but consistency has been an issue. Meanwhile true freshman Patrick Fields looks to get in the mix early this season.
To me, safety and defensive line are the two weak spots of the defense. Once again, the Sooners are picked to finish first in the Big 12 and if they do, that will make four consecutive Big 12 titles. While that is great, how far can this team get if the defense continues to struggle? Sure, they could maybe win another Big 12 title with mediocre defense but beyond that, can they really compete for a national title? I feel like that is the standard for this program. Just getting there may be good enough for some, but not for Lincoln Riley. It’s time for this defense to put up or shut up and the same goes for Mike Stoops who is likely on a very short leash heading into the season. Does this defense need to be the best in the Big 12? I am sure it would be nice but most importantly we need to see improvement across the board. Taking a step in the right direction this season will lead to greater strides for the future.
The question is can Mike Stoops be the guy to take it to a high level once again?
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