Oklahoma football: Extended look at the much-improved Sooner defensive line

Trace Ford, right, pushes Rondell Bothroyd as the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) college football team holds spring practice outside of Gaylord Family/Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on March 21, 2023 in Norman, Okla.tramel cover
Trace Ford, right, pushes Rondell Bothroyd as the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) college football team holds spring practice outside of Gaylord Family/Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on March 21, 2023 in Norman, Okla.tramel cover /

Expert’s note: This is another in our continuing series providing a spring preview of the Oklahoma football position groups in preparation for the 2023 college football season. Today, we take a deep dive into the defensive line.

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a million times… don’t overreact to spring football performances! Okay, we won’t… but man, how about that Sooner defensive line?

It’s way too fun to not overreact as a fanbase and as a college football publication (one of the fastest-rising ones, by the way). So, let’s take a closer look at that much-improved Sooner defensive line.

Defensive Tackle

Top performer Gracen Halton‘s stock skyrocketed this spring. Multiple reports out of Norman during the Spring indicated this Halton was performing well. Still, we were surprised to find out it would be this good. Halton dominated the Spring game (stat line: 5 solo tackles / 2 sacks / 2 TFLs). Halton put together an impressive spring and capped it off with the top defensive line performance. I expect Halton on the field a lot next year for the Sooners’ defensive line.

Defensive tacklesIsaiah Coe and Jordan Kelley looked solid in the interior of the defensive line. However, I think two transfer defensive tackles, Davon Sears and Jacob Lacey, made a case to be next year’s defensive tackle starting pair. Sears showed excellent hand placement and noticeable aggression. Lacey looks like a kid who has played a lot of football and looks comfortable on a football field. Jonah Laulu and Derrick Leblanc had solid days inside. Leblanc is going to be remarkable at OU; that man is enormous. It’s consistently reported that his work ethic is off the charts, especially for a kid still supposed to be in high school. I can’t wait to watch this young man mature into an All-SEC defensive lineman.

In a typical defensive scheme, it’s common to have seven to eight interior defensive linemen competing for playing time. Here are our post-spring defensive tackle rotations:

  1. Davon Sears & Isaiah Coe (Starters)
  2. Jordan Kelley & Jacob Lacey (Key Rotation)
  3. Gracen Halton & Jonah Laulu & Derrick Leblanc (Time getting reserves)


Top performer – Much to the relief of Sooner Nation, transfer Rondell Bothroyd looks like he will be one of the defensive line’s top performers this season. Bothroyd is more of a hybrid defensive lineman compared to others on the Sooners’ defensive front. Bothroyd can line up in a true 3-technique and play defensive tackle, and/or he can line up as an inside 5-technique and play EDGE. Bothroyd is an excellent run defender because he is physical at the point of attack and plays with significant leverage. His experience on a defensive line is obvious, and his confidence emanates during every play. Bothroyd brings leadership to the Sooners’ defensive line room also. I would look for Bothroyd to blow up for the Sooners’ defense this year, especially after having the Spring he had.

Defensive ends (EGDE) – I am confident the starting EDGE players in game one will be Ethan Downs and R Mason Thomas. I am also convinced that will change in Texas. Ethan Downs looks massive and plays with great aggression. I feel like he is better suited as a 3-technique. His size and strength are perfect for a 3-technique defensive tackle, and he doesn’t have the bend or twitch of guys like R Mason Thomas and P.J. Adebawore. R Mason Thomas looked quick and much bigger, which confirms reports out of Norman this spring. R Mason solidifies himself as a starting EDGE after this Spring, and I would look for him to keep it in the Fall. His explosiveness is elite, and his hand use is much improved; I would project R Mason to record 8 plus sacks for the Sooners this year. If R Mason can reach 8-plus sacks, the Sooner’s defense will be a top-25 unit, and the win column will have 9-plus wins.

P.J. Adebawore is a grown man. It blows me away how a person can be built like that and move like a cat. He has elite-level quickness and great bend. Flexibility is so vital for defensive ends, and PJ is very flexible. He explodes off the ball, bends well, and maintains his speed for the entire rush. Bold statement alert… PJ is a starter by Texas. The combination of PJ and R Mason from the EDGE puts tons of pressure on quarterbacks. That’s an exciting pair to think about.

Transfer EDGE Trace Ford had a great spring. Ford’s work ethic is off the charts, and he’s taken to helping the young EDGE rushers learn to perfect their craft. I’m excited about Ford’s on-field production. Still, I am also happy to see him teach other players on the defense how to carry themselves and operate like pros.

Ashton Sanders? Yeah, he had a great spring. Sanders showed great aggression and mental confidence. Sanders had a fantastic spring, and he could look to compete for some time next year. However, the EDGE rushers are deep in Norman this season. It’ll be tough for guys to get time. Incoming Freshman EDGE Taylor Wein has his work cut out for him. I’d look for him to redshirt. Reggie Grimes will struggle for playing time next year, and he led the team in sacks (tied-Downs-4) last year. So, if you want to play EDGE at the University of Oklahoma, you will have to beat out some dudes.

Our EDGE rotations:

  1. Ethan Downs & Rondell Bothroyd (1st & 2nd down guys / Run stoppers)
  2. PJ Adebawore & R Mason Thomas (3rd down guys / Pass rushers)… eventual starters.
  3. Trace Ford (key reserve / pass rusher)
    Seeing Reggie Grimes and Marcus Hicks struggle for time wouldn’t surprise me. It’s a cold world we’re living in.

Overall Opinion

The Sooner defensive line is much improved. The depth inside is getting much better, the EDGE talent has done a complete 180, and the freshmen will be able to compete for time. Todd Bates and Miguel Chavis have done a fantastic job with this defensive line unit. There are 10 to 12 players who will compete for playing time next year. That’s a massive difference from last year’s 6. This defensive line is starting to look like a traditional SEC defensive line. I am excited about their growth and production.

I couldn’t include a brief note about the D-Line in yesterday’s spring game notes. I had to wait an extra day and prepare a good, in-depth article about the unit because they deserved the extra time and attention. If this unit’s growth indicates things to come in Norman, it will be a championship-type of year.