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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Will Ruffin McNeill improve the defensive line?

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McNeill has mentored many outstanding players during his career.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week Lincoln Riley made his first big mark on the Oklahoma Sooners coaching staff by hiring his former boss and mentor Ruffin McNeill from Virginia.

Now that his salary has been ironed out and the details arranged, McNeill will jump headlong into the summer recruiting cycle as OU looks to capitalize on the momentum of a new head coach both on and off the field.

What can we expect from McNeill’s tenure at Oklahoma? Rest assured, this guy is more than a security blanket for Riley. Although Sooners fans certainly hope McNeill will boost Calvin Thibodeaux’s recruiting efforts, the biggest way he can help OU is to develop the young defensive tackles here on campus. History has shown him capable of doing a lot with a little.

McNeill hasn’t always specialized on the line. He’s played lots of roles since his first grad assistant job at Clemson in 1985 (just two years after Bob Stoops got started and Riley was born). At Clemson, Austin Peay, North Alabama and Appalachian State McNeill was a linebackers coach, a role he briefly returned to later on at Texas Tech.

His first defensive line job came at East Carolina in 1992, but he was quickly hired back to Appalachian State as the defensive coordinator the following season. McNeill then served stints as DC at UNLV and Fresno State before joining the Tech staff in 2000.

After six years coaching linebackers and then special teams for the Red Raiders, McNeill finally moved his focus back to the defensive line in 2007 — just in time for Oklahoma native Colby Whitlock to arrive on campus.

Whitlock, born in Norman and raised in Noble, arrived at Tech the way you’d expect an Oklahoma kid to — he was passed on by OU, only the No. 17 prospect in the state according to Rivals. A solid three-star, but nothing to get worked up about.

But Whitlock continued his impressive high school career by playing right away in Lubbock, and he was named a first-team freshman All-American after a 47 tackle, 8.5 TFL 2007 season.

McNeill was upgraded to defensive coordinator after Lyle Setencich stepped down in the middle of the 2007 season, and the Raiders’ defense immediately improved. Whitlock went on to continue his dominance in 2008 and ‘09, playing well in ‘08 and terrorizing the Sooners in ‘09.

That season the Raiders allowed only 3.4 yards per carry, good for 21st in the country, and a noticeable improvement from 2008’s 4 yards. Can you imagine? McNeill’s Tech defenses were vastly better than the modern product.

Whitlock had a great senior season, but McNeill wasn’t around for it. After Leach’s firing, McNeill acted as interim head coach for Tech’s 2010 Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State and then took the head gig at East Carolina.

He brought along longtime Lubbock mentee Lincoln Riley, who went from player to GA to full-time coach under Leach and McNeill. At ECU, Riley installed the Air Raid and continued to grow into the leader we know today.

McNeill worried about the defense with coordinator Brian Mitchell. The D-line results stayed positive.

Mi’cheal Brooks and Lee Pegues earned all-conference honors at ECU during McNeill’s tenure. Brandon Williams and Daniel Howard, meanwhile, were Whitlock’s contemporaries at Tech and also earned all-conference.

A number of McNeill’s linebackers found success as well.

So there is definitely evidence that McNeill can help develop DTs like Neville Gallimore, Du’Vonta Lampkin, Marquise Overton and Matt Romar at OU. McNeill, though a journeyman, has clearly inspired a fierce loyalty from his former players and assistants — it says a lot that Riley thought of him first and convinced OU to spend the necessary money to poach him from Bronco Mendenhall’s staff.

The defensive line is, let’s face it, one of the biggest question marks on the entire team. Riley is inheriting Bob and Mike Stoops’ decision to move to a 4-3, and he won’t be able to help with that transition. But in McNeill he has found someone with experience in the scheme and experience making stars out of scrubs. Maybe this scheme change and new coach can turn guys like Neville Gallimore into McNeill’s best-yet defensive line success stories.