While the buzz coming out of spring camp at Oklahoma last season was that the Sooners had committed to a TCU-esque 4-2-5 defensive scheme, Bob and Mike Stoops shifted course in the summer. OU came out in the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe with a three-man front that no one had seen before. The Sooners have stuck with it ever since.
Why did the Stoopses move to a 3-4 D? Probably equal parts necessity and desire. Given the overall lack of depth at their disposal on the defensive line, a scheme that took one lineman off the field made sense. Furthermore, the 3-4 offers more flexibility for defending against spread offenses.
On the other hand, implementing a 3-4 scheme in the college game can be tantamount to turning around a battleship. Getting the right players on campus to run it successfully often becomes a multi-year process, particularly when it comes to stocking a roster with bigger bodies to hold down the fort up front. Bob and Mike were attempting to do it in the course of a few weeks.
The results? Kind of a mixed bag.
Not surprisingly, making due with personnel recruited for a four-man front led to some struggles against physical, downhill running games. For example, Notre Dame gashed the Sooners for nearly 8 yards per attempt on the ground. The Irish pounded out at least five yards on 15 of 28 true rushing attempts.
Brian Kelly’s offense didn’t do anything particularly flashy – ND just mauled the OU front seven. These five plays offer a good indication of what I’m talking about:
In what would become a theme throughout the season, the Sooner linebackers got pushed around by ND’s big uglies and had problems getting off blocks. In the first play in this package, ND exquisitely executes a stretch play, popping running back Tarean Folston (No. 25) for a big gain around the left edge.
Oklahoma is using its personnel grouping reserved for heavy sets: nickelback Julian Wilson leaves the field; linebacker Corey Nelson (No. 7) flexes outside; and Dom Alexander (No. 42) replaces Nelson on the interior.
While the the three down lineman do a decent job holding their ground, LBs Eric Striker (No. 19), Frank Shannon (No. 20) and Alexander get taken completely out of the play. Notably, ND tight end Troy Niklas (No. 85) blows up Striker to the point that safety Gabe Lynn (No. 9) is demolished in the process:
The second play in the package is more of the same, although OU is running its nickel personnel. Niklas whips Striker again. Nelson might have had a chance of meeting the runner in the hole in this case, except Striker gets driven back into his path to the ball carrier.
Such is life when the defender on the edge checks in 50 pounds lighter than the man blocking him.
What will change in 2014? It starts with shifting Geneo Grissom from defensive end to outside linebacker. From this year’s spring game, observe:
The Sooners will be adding Grissom (No. 85), who packs stellar athleticism in a 6-4 frame that now carries 252 pounds, on the edge. Moving Grissom to linebacker also means getting 289-pound Chuka Ndulue on the field to play defensive end in Grissom’s stead. That’s a heaping helping of beef added at the point of attack.
Aside from the Grissom transition, the Sooners should have better depth across the d-line and linebacking corps. In addition to the holdovers, fresh faces such as standout juco LB Devante Bond and redshirt freshman DL Charles Walker should enable defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery and linebackers coach Tim Kish to establish solid rotations. Should injuries strike the front seven with the same bite as the ‘13 campaign, OU should have capable substitutes ready to fill in, too.
Fundamentally, sports are about leveraging your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses. OU made the move to a three-man front last season in that vein. Even though the defense took a step back statistically last year, the change took some stress off the line and highlighted the flexibility in the Sooners’ complement of versatile safeties and linebackers.
Even with a year in the 3-4 and better personnel, a return in 2014 to the run-snuffing ways of the early seasons in Bob Stoops’ tenure seems unlikely. On the other hand, the run D is the one area this year where the Sooners stand to make the most headway over the ‘13 campaign. Don’t be shocked if OU has the best ground defense in the Big 12 when all is said and done this year.