Can the Oklahoma Defense Become Top 10 Nationally?
The Sooners defense has improved by leaps and bounds after new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s arrival in January of 2019. As a result, is the Oklahoma defense top 10 nationally? The most compelling evidence would be the attitude of the players and coaches. By the same token, there seems to be confidence, not cockiness. Equally important, there seems to be much more depth on this defense than in previous seasons. To that end, many upper-classmen may be pushed by talented younger players for playing time. In light of this let us begin the debate, can the Oklahoma defense become top 10 nationally?
To demonstrate, clearly the defensive line is the strength of the team. Equally important, the line not only is talented but deep. According to Grinch, the Sooners have 14 players he is comfortable playing at any time on the defensive front. At the same time, this is one of the most talented groups in many years at Oklahoma.
Nik Bonitto and Isaiah Thomas created a dynamic tandem off the edge with 95 combined pressures in 2020. Bonitto was credited with the nation’s top pressure rate and ranked first nationally among 257 edge rushers in pass-rush grade. Thomas played both defensive end and defensive tackle, accumulating a team-high 8 1/2 sacks in 2020.
Jalen Redmond is back healthy and ready to contribute. Redmond will make his debut return and has the flexibility to play multiple positions in the line in certain packages. Perrion Winfrey was a key cog in the Sooners defensive line last season, earning second-team All-Big 12 selection. Winfrey will once again anchor the front unit and relentlessly pursue the football.
LaRon Stokes is also back in the mix. He was named the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2019 and made five starts in 2020, missing three games due to injury. Although these are a few of the stars of the defensive line, there is a bevy of young talent waiting for opportunities. Among that young talent is Reggie Grimes, Ethan Downs, Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge. The Sooners also have talented backups that will push for playing time. Those include Josh Ellison, Jordan Kelley, Isaiah Coe, and Kori Roberson.
The Sooners return a physical specimen in David Ugwoegbu. At 6’2 and weighing 251 pounds, his body is reminiscent of former OU linebacker and NFL first-round pick Kenneth Murray. Ugwoegbu may not be as athletic as Murray, but he’s every bit as good at shedding blocks and making tackles. Oklahoma will also get a sixth year out of Caleb Kelly who has unfortunately been sidelined for two years due to injury. Kelly was a five-star recruit out of high school. Even if he isn’t the athlete he was before his injury struggles, he adds depth and experience to this linebacker unit.
DaShaun White also returns to the fold for another season. White is a linebacker with tremendous athleticism and is great in run sets. This could finally be the year that White becomes the linebacker that many think he can be. Bryan Mead will return in 2021 to provide depth for the linebacking corps. Mead provides experience and depth to a talented group. Shane Whitter, a freshman last year with tremendous upside, will provide valuable depth as well.
Brian Asamoah rounds out the list of returning production at the linebacker position. He’s a head hunter, can play sideline-to-sideline, and can secure the edge and make plays at the line of scrimmage. He is the prototypical outside linebacker and an important piece to the puzzle for next season. Not to mention a pair of incoming freshmen that are turning heads. Clayton Smith and Danny Stutsman may push more experienced players for playing time.
This linebacker group is the best to come through Norman in almost a decade, couple that with a veteran defensive line a group of defensive backs that are no longer a liability and you’ve got a window that’s wide open for a national title run.
Oklahoma’s defensive backfield has gotten bigger every year since Grinch arrived as defensive coordinator. Longer arms and taller frames are now what he’s looking for. Now heading into his third spring practice Grinch has populated the Sooner secondary with the kind of bodies he thinks can elevate the OU defense to a championship level.
Just in the past two recruiting cycles, OU has added 6’2 Bryson Washington, 6’3 Justin Harrington, 6’2 Key Lawrence, 6’2 Joshua Eaton, 6’1, Latrell McCutchin, 6’4 Jordan Mukes, and 6’1 Damond Harmon. Potential starting corners in 2021 are 5’11 Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham, but in all likelihood, one corner will be Jaden Davis. Davis appears to be the team leader on the defensive side. True freshman Billy Bowman could certainly figure into the picture.
The Final Word
In the recent past, Oklahoma defenses were a laughing stock of the college football landscape. At long last, the Sooners have finally found continuity on the defensive side of the ball. For the first time in what seems like a lifetime, the Sooners have depth on defense. Most notably in the defensive line and linebacker positions.
In conclusion, all the pieces are in place to make a solid run for the national title. This then becomes Oklahoma’s ticket to the program’s first College Football Playoff victory and the Sooners best hope to win their first national championship in 21 years.
Enjoy the ride, Sooner fans. For the first time in a very long time, you have reason to be excited about an Oklahoma defense.