Oklahoma football: Defense is OU’s difference maker in 2021

NORMAN, OK - APRIL 24: Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch of the Oklahoma Sooners sketches out a play for the defense during their spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on April 24, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - APRIL 24: Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch of the Oklahoma Sooners sketches out a play for the defense during their spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on April 24, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

The past four seasons, the Oklahoma football success was based on outscoring its opponents.

The object of the game, obviously, is to score more points than your opponent. The problem for the Sooners has been that the good teams have been able to slow down OU’s scoring machine, but the Oklahoma defensive unit has struggled keeping opponents out of the end zone.

In simple terms, what that  means is, you never have enough points on the board and no lead is safe.

Sooner fans have witnessed a dramatic improvement in Oklahoma’s defensive performance from what it was just three short years ago before Alex Grinch was hired as defensive coordinator.

The Sooners finished in the top 30 nationally among FBS teams last season and they are setting the bar even higher this season. Seven starters return on defense, and 11 with some starting experience, and this will be the third year in Grinch’s defensive system.

This is expected to be  OU’s best defensive team yet in Lincoln Riley’s fifth season as head coach and a true complement to an offense that remains one of the most explosive in the country.

In 1951, University of Oklahoma president George L. Cross, speaking before a state appropriations committee, uttered the famous words:

"“We’re working to develop a university that our football team can be proud of.”"

Something similar can be said today. The Sooners are working hard to build a defense that is worthy of its high-powered offense. And this is the year that all of the pieces appear to be there.

Sooner defense is building for the future

This doesn’t appear to be a one-year plan, either. Riley and his defensive coaches have been building toward this the last couple of years, using recruiting and the transfer portal to bring in the right players and talent that can sustain strong defensive performance worthy of a championship-caliber team into the future.

To show how far the Sooners have come, in 2018, the year before Grinch arrived in Norman, Oklahoma ranked first in the nation in scoring offense (48.4 points a game), but the complement to that high-scoring offense was a defense that ranked 101st, giving up 33.3 points a game.

The Sooners have steadily improved in that regard under Grinch’s leadership. In season number one under Grinch, in 2019, Oklahoma improved to 64th in scoring defense (27.3), and last year was 28th (21.7).

Three years ago, the Sooners were giving up an average of 454 yards of total defense per game. Only 16 of the 130 FBS teams in the country performed worse than that. The defense was so bad that even Kansas, a team that won just one conference game that season, scored 40 points and accumulated 524 yards of total offense against the Sooners in a game in Norman.

Two years later, in the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, the Sooner defense yielded 351 yards a game, 100 fewer than two seasons before, and ranked 29th nationally. Contributing mightily to that improved performance was a 72 percent success rate getting off the field on third down, fourth-best nationally.

When Grinch took over the OU defensive coordinator duties, he emphasized the need to increase the number of turnovers. Unfortunately, the Sooners were only able to match the 11 turnovers from the year before. The message began resonating last season, however, as the defense increased its turnover total by 42 percent to 19 (16 interceptions and three fumble recoveries).

Face of OU defense this season isn’t one player, but multiple faces at all levels

When asked recently to name who the face of the Oklahoma defense will be this season. Grinch reeled off the names of almost two-thirds of the defensive unit. And he probably left a couple of names out by accident.

Never the less, the message was clear. This is a total team effort, and the Sooners are blessed not only with the talent, but good depth at all levels of the defensive unit headed into the 2021 season.

Jalen Redmond returns to a defensive line that could be one of the best in the country this season and the strength of this defense, a position group that Phil Steele, in his eponymous College Football 2021 Preview,  ranks as the third best in the nation behind Clemson and Georgia.

Redmond led the team with 6.5 sacks in 2019, but opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns. Seniors Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey fill out the Sooners’ defensive front. Thomas led the team with 8.5 sacks a year ago. LaRon Stokes is also back and ready to go after battling through a knee injury last season. Stokes was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2019.

The Sooner linebacker corps is also a deep group, headed by edge rusher Nik Bonitto, a preseason First-Team All-American and All-Big 12 selection. Bonitto was credited with 8.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season and was a major disruptive force.

Senior DaShaun White and junior David Ugwoegbu anchor the middle. And there’s Brian Asamoah to fill out the second level of the OU defensive unit. Asamoah recorded a team-high 66 tackles last season along with a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. Backups who could see plenty of action include sixth-year senior Caleb Kelly, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and sophomore Shane Whitter.

In recent seasons, the defensive secondary has been the Sooners Achilles heel on the defensive side. The unit was giving up to many big plays and deep passes over the top.

Despite losing senior corners Tre Brown and Tre Norwood to the NFL and Robert Barnes and Brendan Radley-Hiles to the transfer portal, however, Oklahoma enters the 2021 season with talent and depth at the back end that has been lacking the past few years.

Seniors Pat Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell appear to have the two safety spots locked up, but Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence will also see a lot of time at the position and will challenge the two seniors for playing time.

There will be competition at the cornerback spot, but it appears redshirt-sophomore Woodi Washington and junior Jaden Davis will be the starting corners to begin the season, The Sooner defensive coaches are also high on sophomore D.J. Graham and are impressed with what they’ve seen from true freshman Latrell McCutchin, a four-star recruit out of Austin, Texas.

The Sooners’ like to employ five defensive backs, and when they do we will see sophomore Jeremiah Criddell, who Riley and Grinch were really impressed with in the spring, as well true freshman Billy Bowman, an athlete who was converted from wide receiver.

Asked during last week’s press conference that preceded the start of fall practice what the next step is in the growth of the Oklahoma defense, Grinch said:

“The next step is to be more consistent. The next step is to stop fielding questions about the defense at Oklahoma and what’s the next step,” he said. “We’ve got a lot in front of us, and I think we’ve got a good group to get it done.”

When Grinch interviewed for the DC job ahead of the 2019 season, its was almost scary how much in line our two visions were of what this Oklahoma defense could be, Riley said recently.

It may have been scary then, and it’s going to be scary this season for the Sooners’ opponents.