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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Veteran DE D.J. Ward has truly arrived for the OU defense

The local product is finally thriving in his fifth year in Norman.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When D. J. Ward first arrived on campus in 2013, he was a promising blue-chip recruit. Ward was a local four-star product from Southmoore (and previously Lawton High) who fielded offers from Auburn, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and a long list of other major programs. In addition to having the pressure of being the top prospect out of the Sooner State in 2013, Ward was also tasked with helping to revamp a maligned sooner defense. To finish the 2012 season, the Oklahoma Sooners were torched by West Virginia, Oklahoma State and then Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. This was the first year that Mike Stoops returned to the fold as defensive coordinator for the Sooners.

Following the season, the Stoops brothers changed the defense from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme. Despite this change, freshman D.J. Ward was expected to produce right away and this pressure weighed on him, as he said in a recent interview with Unfortunately for Ward and the Sooner defense, he had to wait an entire season to get on the field after suffering an enlarged spleen during a summer workout. This injury not only cost Ward 30 pounds of body weight, but also hurt his confidence at the beginning of his Sooner career. Ward had previously missed his senior season of high school football due to an eligibility issue, so it was his second consecutive year away from the gridiron.

During the offseason leading up to his redshirt freshman season in 2014, Ward worked hard to rebuild his body. Even though Ward gained a lot of the weight he lost back, he still faced the problem of a deep defensive line and a 3-4 scheme that didn't fit him. At 6’2” and 250, Ward was undersized as a 3-4 defensive end. Facing the tackle head on in this type of formation did not fit Ward because his greatest asset was his long arms and speed, not his strength or weight. Despite not fitting the system employed by Mike Stoops, Ward played in some games during the 2014 and 2015 seasons and became a consistent starter towards the end of the 2016 season.

As a starter, Ward began to get in the backfield more and get some quarterback pressures last year but failed to be an impact player on the defensive line. This was not just a D.J. Ward issue, the OU defensive line struggled as a whole last year to both stuff the run and get after the quarterback. A lot of these struggles could be attributed to the departure of Charles Tapper and injuries to Charles Walker. These struggles led to a poor defense overall that kept the Sooners out of the CFP race last season. As I have discussed in several previous articles this season, lack of a pass rush creates pressure for the entire defense. Although it is important for guys like Caleb Kelly and Obo to continue to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, it all starts at the defensive line.

That’s where D.J. Ward come in. When Mike Stoops actually utilizes the 4-3 scheme like he said he would this year, it plays to the strengths of Ward. With his 6’2 260 frame, Ward can utilize his long arms on the edge to get around the tackle to rush the passer and wrap up running backs who try to get off the edge. This does two important things for the OU defense: first of all, it opens up rushing lanes for guys like Kenneth Murray, Emmanuel Beal, Caleb Kelly and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and second, it takes pressure off the secondary. It takes even more pressure off the secondary than a blitz by a linebacker or safety because a defensive end like Ward can get to the quarterback quicker and help collapse the pocket for the opposing QB. This cuts down the time guys like Jordan Thomas and Parnell Motley have to cover to three or four seconds sometimes rather than eight or nine seconds. This makes a huge difference, especially if the corners are playing aggressive press coverage off the line.

Here is an example of the 4-3 scheme working to Ward’s advantage last Saturday:

It is not a coincidence that after Oklahoma switched to a 4-3 scheme last Saturday, Ward ended up registering a sack. On this play, you can see how Ward uses his speed and long arms to get around the tackle and get to Texas Tech quarterback Nic Shimonek. If Oklahoma employs this front against Oklahoma State, then it could be another big day for Ward.

Even though we are several years removed from D.J. Ward arriving on campus, he is finally starting to truly live up this potential. If Ward continues to progress this season and Mike Stoops sticks with the four-man front, then it will be good news for the OU defense and the draft prospects of D.J. Ward. As the Sooners prepare to face potent offenses like Oklahoma State and TCU, they need Ward more than ever. If either Neville Gallimore or Matt Romar (both questionable) are able to return this Saturday for Bedlam, it should help Ward even more and take some pressure off him on the outside. For the sake of the Ward and the Sooner defense as a whole, please stick with the 4-3, Mike!