After the Georgia Bulldogs finished trampling Oklahoma’s defense in the Rose Bowl earlier this year, Lincoln Riley made note of the physical disparity between the Sooners’ defenders and those on the other sideline. He added that the coaching staff was working to address the personnel issues on that side of the ball.
If there was any doubt as to what Riley was referencing, OU inked nine defensive linemen in the last two recruiting cycles and three JACK linebackers, who shift between playing as down linemen and stand-up defensive ends in Mike Stoops’ defensive scheme. The Sooners didn’t sacrifice quality while adding quantity to the reinforcements for their defensive front, either. From 2017 to 2018, the four-year moving average of blue-chip DL recruits signed per season by the Sooners edged up from 1.75 to 2.75. (For purposes of this discussion, we will count JACKs as DLs.)
Riley had a point about the guys populating OU’s DL in recent years. Recruiting languished in the earlier part of the decade, owing to complacency and frequent turnover in the position coach – from Jackie Shipp to Jerry Montgomery to Diron Reynolds to Calvin Thibodeaux in the span of five years.
Advanced stats point to how declining talent manifested itself in the unit’s production.
College football stats guru Bill Connelly calculates what he calls Havoc Rate to quantify a defense’s ability to generate negative plays. As I mentioned in a previous article, the Havoc Rate of OU’s entire defense has dropped since the Sooners switched defensive coordinators in 2012. Not surprisingly, the downturn in disruption has popped up with the DL, too. (And to be fair, Stoops’ heavy use of two-gap fronts has depressed the numbers of the linemen as well.)
If Thibodeaux and co-defensive line coach Ruffin McNeill can get the youngsters up front to play up to their potential, the unit will get back to wreaking havoc soon enough. Unfortunately, the returns from the recruiting trail probably won’t be realized this year. For now, OU has to hope that at least a few of its returning rotation players make big leaps forward.
OU suffered a tough blow a year ago when an unspecified medical issue all but ended NT Matt Romar’s senior season as soon as it started. No one was going to mistake Romar for Vince Wilfork, but he had proved to be a reliable contributor on the interior. His absence thinned the ranks considerably at one of the sport’s more taxing positions.
OU finds itself adjusting to a new setback this year following Du’Vonta Lampkin’s decision to leave school early for the NFL. At least the Sooners don’t have to shift on the fly in this case.
Thibodeaux and McNeill are turning to fourth-year junior Neville Gallimore to help solidify the spot. Even though Gallimore seems to fit better as a three-technique defensive tackle, reports from spring ball were promising. Playing the big Canadian over the center more might unlock the potential he has flashed during his three seasons in Norman.
Luckily, the Sooners do have two other capable options at the nose in Dillon Faamatau and Marquise Overton. You know what you’re getting with both: big bodies who can occupy blockers. Neither is going to disrupt much inside – they combined for five tackles for loss in ’17, equaling Lampkin’s output by himself.
Put it all together and you likely have a three-man rotation that can handle a lot thankless work in the middle of the defense. Rising above mere adequacy will require that Gallimore acclimates quickly.
After sitting out the first four games of the ‘17 season on suspension, Amani Bledsoe quickly moved up the depth chart at DT. His ascent matched up with the buzz coming out of practice while he was out of sight to the general public. By the end of the year, he was the Sooners’ top option at the position.
If it sounds like Bledsoe wrecked shop once he got on the field, not quite. He made a marginal impact on the D last year and flashed his skills occasionally. That included a solid day at the office in the Red River Shootout (four tackles and a sack), which is as good a time as any to live up to billing. All in all, though, Bledsoe’s lack of production felt underwhelming relative to the hype: He ended the season with just 18 tackles and three tackles for loss in 10 games.
Bledsoe possesses the size (6-5, 283 pounds) and strength to hold up playing a two-gap scheme as a four-technique defensive end. He likely has an even higher ceiling playing three technique in a one-gap scheme, which Stoops supposedly plans to use more often this season. Bledsoe also enters this season without the cloud of an NCAA suspension hanging over him, and the extra attention that comes with repping as a starter beginning in August can’t hurt the prospects for his growth.
In terms of depth, it’s possible that Gallimore could still end up getting snaps at his old position. The development of sophomore Tyreece Lott (6-2, 286 pounds), who saw limited action last season as a rookie, should go a long way to determining if Gallimore will need to shuffle around.
OU’s moribund defense did have one pleasant surprise last season in Kenneth Mann.
Initially viewed as a likely role player behind D.J. Ward at strongside defensive end, it didn’t take long for Mann to grow into essentially a co-starter. Stoops even kept him on the field in OU’s third-down rush package, enabling Mann to finish the year second on the team with five sacks.
While Mann sits atop the depth chart in August, count on true freshman Ronnie Perkins making a push for immediate playing time. The four-star recruit enrolled early to go through spring drills, and he already has physical makeup (6-3, 265) to handle himself in the trenches. He seems destined to at least split time with Mann at the end of the year.
The wild card at DE: Walter Brady. A graduate transfer from Middle Tennessee State, Brady first made waves nationally in 2015 when he started as a redshirt freshman at Missouri. Brady has already visited Norman this summer, if he lands with the Sooners, he will almost certainly work his way into the rotation.