Back in August, I expressed my reservations about the Oklahoma Sooners defensive line, noting my skepticism that the unit could perform at a national championship level.
I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to the big fellas. While injuries clearly took a toll up front in 2010, this year, the front four has managed to stay healthy. The difference has been pronounced for defensive line coach Jackie Shipp's group.
It starts with how OU has stopped the run. With rotating defensive tackles Stacy McGee, Casey Walker and JaMarkus McFarland generating a strong push on the interior and occupying blockers, the Sooners are allowing just 3.08 yards per rushing attempt, ranking 23rd nationally. That represents a decrease of more than a yard from a year ago. Meanwhile, the Sooners rank 7th in defensive rushing S&P+, Football Outsiders' statistic used to measure efficiency.
Also, the Sooners are holding up well in likely running situations. On first down, for instance, OU is allowing 3.56 yards per rush (31st), compared to an average of 4.89 (84th) in '10. Football Outsiders' numbers show that OU ranks 5th nationally in defensive S&P+ on standard downs, which include more likely running scenarios.
Walker's performance probably accounts for a good deal of the tackles' overall improvement. After missing six games in '10 with a knee injury, Walker has provided a disruptive presence in the middle and given opposing interior linemen fits all season. Maybe his biggest play so far this season came in the first quarter of the Texas game, when he sacked QB Case McCoy, knocking the ball loose and helping to set up an easy score.
Out on the edge, senior defensive end Frank Alexander's play is finally matching the tantalizing potential he has shown in flashes during the previous three seasons. The big Louisianan has not only been the Sooners' defensive MVP, he has played at a first-team All-American level through the season's first five games. His 5.5 sacks have him tied for 6th in the country, and he has been strong against the run as well.
The development of Ronnell Lewis at the other DE spot has given coordinator Brent Venables yet another toy to scheme with, shuffling The Hammer around the field as both a hand-in-the-dirt rush end and stand-up outside linebacker when OU goes to a 3-4 look. As evidence of his versatility, Lewis is tied with middle linebacker as OU's leading tackler on the season.
Maybe the most pleasant surprise of all, though, has been the play of fourth-year juniors David King and R.J. Washington.
Much like Pryce Macon a year ago, King and Washington are finally showing signs of living up to the hype that accompanied them to campus as freshmen in 2008. In particular, King's size (6-5, 275 lbs.) makes him an asset against more run-heavy offenses – he drew the start in the Red River Shootout to help defend Texas' new power running game.
All in all, the maturation across the front four has played a big part in turning OU's defense into one of the three or four best in the country. While LSU and Alabama may have an edge top to bottom on the Sooners, OU may very well boast the best defensive line in the country.
Again, my apologies, guys.