Oklahoma has had two of the worst defenses on a championship contender in college football history in their previous two seasons. Going into this offseason with new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, there was optimism in Norman about the future, but little was expected to change in the present. Oklahoma went from 101st in total defense in 2018, ranking last in the Big 12 Conference, to 24th in the nation as the league’s leader in the category. Sure, the Sooners defense still has a ways to go to continue improve, like maybe holding teams to more field goals when they get into the red zone (OU ranked 9th in the Big 12 in red zone defense), giving up less explosive players and taking the football away at a much higher clip, but even the numbers cannot possibly express how much improvement they’ve made.
The Sooners’ issues really hadn’t been about talent, OU has recruited at a very high level and likely boast at least four future first round picks in their starting 11 with DE Ronnie Perkins, DT’s Neville Gallimore, Jalen Redmond and finally All-America candidate, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. Oklahoma must obviously improve their depth and get more corner stone pieces in the secondary like highly-rated young players Jaden Davis, Brenden Radley-Hiles and Delarin Turner-Yell.
The Sooners’ transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen without some growing pains along the way. There was a lot of contention early, and not everyone originally bought in. OU lost several highly-touted recruits to the transfer portal like cornerbacks Starland Baldwin and Miguel Edwards, plus defensive lineman Ron Tatum and more. Injuries never help, like with Tre Norwood, the man most consider the best defensive back on the OU roster, and certainly the most flexible. It was believed five-star senior linebacker Caleb Kelly would be lost for the year, though it appears the plan is for him to play four games and redshirt and return in 2020.
In short, the Sooners didn’t get here without adversity, such as the loss of their starting rush linebacker Jon-Michael Terry, who went down for the year in the middle of the season. Terry had been a steady player all year long for OU, and though he wasn’t considered a star, he was a steadying veteran who excelled at “doing his job”. Oklahoma replaced him with freshman Nik Bonitto and David Ugwoegbu. Many shrugged at the loss of JMT and assumed the more talented young players could fill in nicely. Then Oklahoma went to Kansas State. The Wildcats ran wild on the Sooners, taking advantage of their young linebackers. OU fell 48-41 giving up five rushing touchdowns and 213 yards on the ground. Then Iowa State came to town, and Oklahoma struggled once again to contain the runs to the outside as OU survived a scary 42-41 game.
After those two games, it sure felt like, “Here we go again” for Sooner Nation, with the same old, same old Oklahoma defense. However, the Sooners followed that up by only giving up an average of 277 yards over the next four games. Nik Bonitto stepped up and is now playing at a high level. If you take away those two games the Sooners played, while trying to get the freshmen up to speed, the defensive numbers are outstanding. And this was capped off on Saturday with a great performance by the defense in the Big 12 Championship victory over the Baylor Bears. In all other contests this season, Oklahoma has only given up 308 yards of offense (that would be 14th in the nation), and 20.7 points per game, facing several quality offenses. The Sooners have also yet to surrender a 300 yard passer in any contest so far this year.
Alex Grinch has done a phenomenal job this year, a job that even defies and transcends the numbers as they currently stand today. Let’s not forget the job done by Brian Odom, Calvin Thibodaux, Roy Manning and the rest of the defensive staff. If Oklahoma can get Jalen Hurts to secure the football in late December, they might get to take a trip to New Orleans in mid-January to play for a National Championship. But regardless of what happens in Atlanta, the Sooners have a lot to hang their hats on this year, and this team will only get stronger next year in large part thanks to their young roster of talented playmakers who are getting invaluable experience this season.
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