The Oklahoma Sooners will once again be the team to beat in the Big 12 Conference. They’ve won six Big 12 Championships in a row and Lincoln Riley might just have his best team yet. If nothing else, it appears to be his most-balanced team, with Alex Grinch rebuilding the defense in a way many did not think possible. But still, for OU to reach its next goal of reaching, and winning, a National Championship, certain breaks need to happen. We’ve already looked at the Oklahoma Sooners offense, so here are a look at the three things that will define the Oklahoma defense this season.
1. Defensive Line Living Up to the Hype
This may be Oklahoma’s best defensive line in well over a decade. Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Jalen Redmond are all studs in their own right. Thomas was a Second-Team All-Big 12 pick after he totaled 32 tackles (20 solo, 12 assists) with team highs of 8.5 sacks (for 60 yards) and 13.0 tackles for loss. Winfrey was also Second-Team All-Big 12 after he totaled 19 tackles (nine solo, 10 assists) with 6.0 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. Meantime, Jalen Redmond opted to sit out the 2020 season, but the former five-star recruit was a rising star in 2019 when he led team with 6.5 sacks and ranked third with 11.0 tackles for loss. Others include LaRon Stokes, Josh Ellison, and Jordan Kelley, plus can a player like Reggie Grimes take the next step in his development? There is depth here, but clearly the starting trio is what will scare opposing defenses. If this unit lives up to the hype on the defensive line,
2. Secondary Battles
There is talent, but also questions. After the spring game, Lincoln Riley said about this unit, “I think the secondary could turn out about a hundred different ways right now. I’m excited to see how that group grows and what we can be there. We certainly have more position battles going on in the secondary, we absolutely have more length than we’ve ever had in my time here at Oklahoma, which is exciting. It’s been a very competitive group.”
Woodi Washington leads the way, returning at one of the cornerback spots. He got better as the season progressed and in the last two games of the season against Iowa State and Florida he combined for 11 tackles, two pass break ups and one interception. OU should also feel pretty good about its safeties with Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields. Fields ranked third on team with 45 total tackles and had one tackle for loss, an interception and four pass breakups. Turner-Yell is heading into his third year as a starter after he ranked second on team with 52 total tackles last season.
The other cornerback spot is likely either D.J. Graham or Jaden Davis. Both have started games over their careers, but they also each have plenty to prove. Graham has the edge as he has the length Alex Grinch craves in the secondary. At the nickel back spot, Brendan Radley-Hiles entered the transfer portal and now the defense will turn to Jeremiah Criddell, who played in 11 games and racked up 12 tackles. However now the former All-American and four-star recruit will have to prove himself as a starter in a tough position (just ask Radley-Hiles!).
3. Is Nik Bonitto Worthy of the Bednarik Award?
The Bednarik Award is given each year to the best defensive player in college football. Rush linebacker Nik Bonitto is getting an enormous amount of attention this offseason after the Second-Team All-American totaled 32 tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, two pass breakups and a team-high 10 QB hurries. According to Pro Football Focus, Bonitto had the nation’s top pressure rate at 25.7%. He also ranked first nationally per PFF among 257 edge rushers in pass-rush grade (93.5) and pass-rush win rate (28.5%). If Bonitto becomes the most feared pass rusher in the sport, OU’s defense will be able to go toe-to-toe with its offense and possibly deliver Oklahoma its first National Championship in two decades.