Is R.J. Washington the most important player for the OU defense in 2012?
The Sooners got a little bit of a mixed bag performance from the defensive line during the 2011 season. The defensive ends were exceptional, while the defensive tackles weren't as bad as many were predicting before the season started yet also didn't have the kind of impact you'd like to see.
As they head into 2012, Oklahoma returns all the players who contributed at the defensive tackle position while facing the difficult task of replacing two all-conference players at defensive end. They'll likely need Frank Alexander-type performances from the two most likely replacement starters in David King and R.J. Washington to avoid a significant drop off at DE. At DT, they really just need the three returning seniors to play up to their potential.
As we have with our previous editions of this 2012 preview, we'll breakdown all the candidates after the jump.
The Starters: David King, Jamarkus McFarland, Casey Walker, R.J. Washington
Both King and Washington will be seniors and barring some kind of offseason incident, are virtually guaranteed starters at DE. King is a solid and dependable player and that's not a bad thing. The only issue with that fact is up to this point in he's career he's just been a solid and dependable player. He isn't a dynamic pass rusher which could put more pressure on Washington to provide said pass rush as well as force the defense to blitz more frequently. Speaking of Washington, OU fans will surely be rooting for him to have the kind of senior season Frank Alexander just had. Washington is the kind of pass rushing force at DE that every defense needs and the light finally came on for him last year. He bought into what the coaches were asking of him and the results showed on the field. He'll definitely need to continue that progression in 2012. The obvious issue here is that neither have been full-time players in the past, so the inexperience factor has to be a concern.
McFarland and Walker are essentially interchangeable with fellow senior Stacy McGee and much like this past season figure to see most of the snaps at DT. All three have shown flashes of being a dominant presence on the inside, but have never consistently been that kind of player for extended periods. With the issues this team is likely to have at DE, some strong play from the tackles could go a long way towards relieving some of the pressure on the outside guys.
A scary amount of inexperience and that includes the starters. Grissom and Ndulue both played in extremely limited roles this pasts season and have drawn praise from the coaches at times. Grissom was expected to be a much bigger contributor last season after talk that he would have played as a true freshman the year before were it not for an injury. So it was somewhat of a surprise, even with the depth at DE in 2011, that he really failed to make any kind of impact. Ndulue was a player our of h.s. that was very raw in terms of technique and knowledge of the position, but late in season it was him coming in off the bench over Grissom.
Nelson is a JUCO signee and has already enrolled at Oklahoma. Thus he obviously be on campus to take part in spring practice and will very likely be a part of the DE rotation in 2012. He was the defensive player of the year in one of the more highly regarded JUCO conferences and could help to provide pass rush when paired with Washington. Hughes is one of those guys who you'd want to be the first one off the bus when you pull up to the opponents stadium. At 6'6" 250 lbs, he's on the large size for a DE and could be the perfect fit for this defense in that he's more than big enough to hold up against the run and quick enough to get after the passer. He'll be fighting an uphill battle with all the guys ahead of him on the depth chart, but I'd personally love to see him get a chance as I believe he's a star waiting to happen.
Returning senior starters (three including McGee obviously), and much like at DE, behind them a glaring amount of inexperience. Williams will be a RSo. who has never played a down, Anderson & Phillips will both be RFr., and Wade will be a true freshman. All three of the freshman were highly regarded as recruits, but defensive tackle is arguably the most difficult position to project so predicting their success of failure is a risky proposition. Phillips is an athletic freak (in a good way) and is probably the most likely of the three to see the field. But Anderson and Williams obviously have more time in the system while Wade could be a real load in the middle.
The one thing that is obvious looking at the recap above is that the Sooners can ill afford any injuries to their front four. You could argue that they wouldn't be in dire straits if one of the three senior DTs went down and I wouldn't disagree with you, but the same cannot be said for DE IMO. If they defy the odds and stay healthy all year, maybe this doesn't become the issue that it appears to be on paper eight months before the season starts but this OU fan can't help but be worried about what things look like above. There is a ton of talent, always will be at OU, but the shocking amount of inexperience is more than a little alarming.