If you want to know what kind of impact five-star freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles can have on Oklahoma’s defense this season, fire up some film of the 2017 South Carolina Gamecocks.
With strongside linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams lost for the season after the third game, coach Will Muschamp opted to make USC’s nickel package the team’s base defensive personnel. Rookie safety Jamyest Williams suddenly became a huge factor on the defensive side ball.
Williams was on the field for the majority of snaps from that point on and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. He showed an ability to lock up slot receivers at the line of scrimmage and tackled well in space. He even became a credible threat as a blitzer. The Gamecocks didn’t seem to lose a step on D after inserting Williams in the lineup, finishing a respectable 36th nationally in Defensive S&P+, 33rd in Defensive FEI and 34th in ESPN’s Defensive Efficiency metric.
Williams and Bookie share a lot in common. Both are on the short and squatty side: Williams checks in a 5-8, 182 pounds, while Bookie is listed at 5-9, 186. Each also has a Swiss Army Knife quality to his game, which enables coordinators to move them around to play different roles within the defense. For example, Williams is moving to a true safety position in 2018, where he moonlighted a year ago. Likewise, Bookie shifted between nickelback and safety in OU’s spring game, and the talk from Norman has been that he will audition at multiple positions in August. (By the way, much love to our buddy and newly announced Stadium football analyst Michael Felder for coming up with this comparison.)
OU’s coaching staff will definitely find a spot for Bookie on the field. The exciting part is that Bookie could be a rich man’s version of his South Carolina counterpart – faster, more athletic, a slightly larger frame. In a conference like the Big 12 where the ball is getting thrown around more, Bookie stands to have an even bigger effect on games.
In fact, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, OU’s freshman phenom actually calls to mind this dude:
In terms of what Radley-Hiles’ exact role will be this year, that probably depends on what happens at other positions. Mike Stoops has made it clear the Sooners intend to play more nickel defense this season. In application, that could probably go one of two ways.
Behind door number one, OU runs something akin to a standard 3-4 defense. Bookie would play one of the traditional safety positions in this scenario. Shapeshifter Ryan Jones would man the SAM LB spot. Jones would essentially function as a big nickel, flexing out to cover inside receivers and occupy short zones.
Alternatively, Stoops could roll out five true defensive backs. Bookie would play NB, joined by two safeties. In this scenario, Bookie would handle inside receivers and could function as a SAM LB versus bigger personnel groupings.
There are good arguments for either course of action in theory. Don't be surprised if both are deployed to varying degrees this fall.
The other candidates
What about the other safeties? If 2017 is any indication, one spot is reserved for Kahlil Haughton.
As a junior, Haughton might have played the most consistent ball from week to week of all of the Sooners’ safeties. He didn’t do a lot that jumped off the screen, but he didn’t bust many coverages. He also proved to be one of OU’s superior tacklers in the secondary (which admittedly isn’t saying much).
Now a senior, Haughton should provide a steadying presence that OU undoubtedly needs on the back end. That puts him in line for a starting spot no matter how the Sooners line up.
Meanwhile, Jordan Parker’s transition to safety hints that he will find himself squarely in the mix for a starting spot if OU plays five DBs. Parker stabilized OU’s ailing CB spot in 2016 and looked like a budding star in doing so. Injuries in the spring and fall made 2017 a wasted year for him, though. Assuming Parker stays healthy, the bet here is that secondary coach Kerry Cooks puts the redshirt sophomore in a contributing role.
Depth at safety is in short supply after that, especially with junior Chanse Sylvie and senior Prentice McKinney out for the year.
Sophomore Robert Barnes (6-2, 207 pounds) showed flashes a year ago of growing into a physical, rangy presence in the middle of the field. If he’s healthy and firing on all cylinders, he could compete for a starting spot. Unfortunately, the times when he he’s not dogged by some kind of nagging ailment have been rare so far.
Justin Broiles also could work his way into the mix at NB this year after receiving a redshirt in '17. On the other hand, freshmen Delarrin Turner-Yell and Patricks Fields receiving any kind of significant playing time at safety this fall would be bad news.