Alex Grinch has found himself in either an unenviable task or a position that many defensive coordinators would clamor for. Grinch has a tremendous opportunity in 2019. For a defense that finished ranked 114th in the nation a year ago, the production couldn’t get much worse. Also, for a pass-happy Big 12 conference, the Sooners ranked dead last a year ago in passing yards given up per game. Improvement is critical to put the Sooners in position to win their eighth national championship. With about two months until the season begins, can Grinch right the Sooners defensive ship?
New voices in the locker room
With the removal of former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops last year, a new regime would enter in 2019. Now, Grinch has kept on a few coaches from last year. But, there are two critical additions that should pay dividends this season and beyond.
First, both of these new coaches bring a new level of relational intensity to the Sooner defense that has been missing. Roy Manning comes over from UCLA and also had a stint with Grinch in Washington State. Manning brings a lot of familiarity and diversity to the defensive staff. He has coached linebackers, special teams, and cornerbacks in his career. Currently, he will join forces with Grinch in the secondary to coach the cornerbacks as a big area of need for the Sooners.
A familiar face to Oklahoma fans in Brian Odom. The familiarity also rings true for Odom as he is from Oklahoma and has coached with Grinch is the past as well. Odom was a member of the Sooner football program during their last national championship in 2000. Also, he coached with Grinch as a graduate assistant at Missouri and again at Washington State. The recruiting prowess of both Manning and Odom at a place that has resources such as Oklahoma will give them a competitive advantage in the future.
Culture change in Norman
One of the biggest challenges of a new coaching staff is getting the players to buy into the system they are trying to implement. In the case of Grinch, he needed to change an attitude of accepting mediocrity over the last few years. Grinch has done a good job at changing the attitude as the production in the spring has been improved and he was fairly pleased with where they were as spring ball ended.
With a new culture brings new ideas and new philosophies. Grinch’s defense which has bee dubbed as “Speed D” is predicated on rallying to the football and creating turnovers. The Sooners ranked 81st in turnover margin in 2018 with only forcing 11 all season. Grinch believes forcing 24 turnovers equates to nine victories for a football team. Getting the ball back to the Sooner offense is a priority and even if Oklahoma can double the turnover output from a year ago then you will see a much-improved unit.
Players must play at a higher level
Outside of new schemes and philosophies, many of the existing players must play better. Consistent productivity and ownership are paramount to seeing that improvement that is needed. We’ll look at one player from each level of the defense that must step up in 2019.
Gallimore enjoyed his best season in Norman last year. Still, that play must improve. He seems to be one player that might benefit the most on the defensive line from the schemes of Grinch. Grinch emphasizes a one-gap technique that puts more emphasis in allowing the tackles to shoot the gap and attack the backfield. That is a change from Stoops philosophy of allowing the defensive lineman to simply hold up the offensive lineman to allow the linebackers to make plays.
In terms of statistics, Murray had a much improved year in 2018. He registered 155 tackles and 4.5 sacks a year ago. However, Murray still found himself out of position a lot of times and lacked some point of attack decision making. There was talk last year of Murray changing positions but that never came to fruition. Given Grinch’s track record of getting not only the best 11 players on the field but getting the fastest players out there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Murray move outside.
We placed both Norwood and Motley here as this was the biggest area of improvement from the defense in 2018. With both standing at 6’0 tall, Norwood and Motley are a bit undersized based on Grinch’s preference. Norwood improved some late in the year, but he struggled with getting bullied by bigger and stronger receivers. Meanwhile, Motley (among all defensive backs) struggled to make competitive plays with the ball in the air. A huge improvement in technique in the passing game, as well as mentality, will be key to improving that dead last passing yardage allowed ranking.
As we continue examining the question around can Grinch right the Sooners defensive ship, we look at some new blood. Oklahoma had a consensus top 10 recruiting class in 2019. In fact, the Sooner actually hauled in seven four-star defensive players in this class. Many of those players, as well as some redshirt freshman, will be counted on to contribute immediately.
Jalen Redmond was only able to participate in three games a year ago due to a blood clot issue. The issue was detected in early summer last year and then resurfaced late in the season. Redmond, a five-star recruit in the 2018 class, was expected to be an early contributor last season. However, after a healthy spring this year he should challenge for time at the defensive end position.
LaRon Stokes, Marcus Stripling, and Marcus Hicks are members of the 2019 class that will challenge for time immediately. Stokes was an early enrollee in the spring and received praise from Lincoln Riley publically. He comes to Oklahoma as the third-best junior college defensive end in the country. Stripling was the 17th ranked strong-side defensive end in the country. His size at 6’5 and 240 pounds should allow him to compete physically right away. Lastly, Hicks could be the defensive steal for the Sooners. At 6’6 and 260 pounds, I think he could very well play inside for the Sooners this season.
We’ll start with a couple of players that have been in the Sooners system that should get some playing time this season. DaShaun White and Levi Draper could help out in starting roles. White epitomizes the speed at the linebacking position that Grinch craves. And, if Draper can be solid for the Sooners, it will allow Murray to move outside.
Jonathan Perkins was the Sooners lone true linebacker commit in this years class. He was a three-star commit but is the 31st ranked inside linebacker in the country. Although it may be true that he’s headed for a redshirt season, he could be looked to provide some depth inside.
Oklahoma could be in store for immediate help both at the cornerback and safety positions this season. First, let’s start at safety. Jeremiah Criddell was quite possibly the most important defensive commit in the defensive class. He has the versatility to play both at corner or safety for the Sooners. He should be an immediate starter this season.
Woodi Washington was as close to a five-star recruit as you can get. However, he comes to Oklahoma as one of two four-star cornerbacks. Washington played at an elite high school in Tennessee where he was rarely tested last year. Even so, look for him to challenge Motley and Tre Brown.
Rome was not built in a day. So, it’s unrealistic to expect Grinch to turn Oklahoma into a top 20 defense this season. However, the Sooner can realistically expect a top 70 defense. The biggest part of the reclamation project will be the buy-in and attitude. If Grinch and the remainder for the coaching staff can rally the team around that fact, the opportunity is there.
The question has been asked many times whether the defensive liability over the past few seasons have been related to coaching or talent. With the infusion of talent as well as new defensive coaches when the Sooners line up against Houston on September 1st, the Sooner nation will get their answer. Can Grinch right The Sooners defensive ship just enough to get Oklahoma back to the playoffs?
We spent some additional time breaking down everything defense for the Sooners this year. The full podcast can be seen below.