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Oklahoma Sooners Football: A look at Ruffin McNeill’s changes to the defense

OU’s interim coordinator tweaked the defensive scheme and player rotations against TCU.

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

Since taking over for deposed defensive coordinator Mike Stoops three weeks ago, Ruffin McNeill claimed the Oklahoma Sooners wouldn’t change much on that side of the ball in the second half of the season.

OU’s first outing in McNeill’s interim stint proved that to be not entirely true. Although the Sooners showed the TCU Horned Frogs some familiar alignments, McNeill and the rest of the defensive staff made some intriguing tweaks to their schemes and personnel groupings.

New role for Bookie

By my count, freshman defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles was one of only two Sooners on the field for all 56 of OU’s defensive snaps. Bookie found himself tasked with taking over at nickel for redshirt freshman Justin Broiles (now a second-string cornerback).

Unfortunately for Bookie, his most memorable moments from the game included a dropped interception and a stiff arm from TCU quarterback Michael Collins. In reality, he played outstanding ball versus the Horned Frogs, especially in the second half.

In a recent podcast that I recorded with Stadium’s Michael Felder, he noted that Bookie’s entire career up to this season involved him playing around the ball. As such, he looked like a “fish out of water” playing away from the line of scrimmage at deep safety.

We saw what happened when Bookie got a chance to play up close — he handled TCU’s inside receivers with his physical coverage as a slot corner. Meanwhile, he was facing run responsibilities better suited to his skill set.

Robert Barnes

Bookie’s move opened the door for oft-injured sophomore Robert Barnes at safety, and he ended up playing all but one snap in the game. Tough to say if that is more of a function of how well Barnes played or how little TCU’s QBs had to offer.

Barnes did show flashes of providing the run support from OU’s safeties that seemed to be missing in the first six games of the year.


OU generally eschewed the 3-4 defense versus TCU. Instead, the Sooners rolled out a version of the 4-2-5 on 36 of 56 defensive snaps. When TCU was playing 11 personnel – one running back and one tight end, senior TE Cole Novak (No. 84) – you could count on the Sooners coming out in this alignment.

The defensive line typically set up shop in a standard four-man over front with the nose tackle shading the center to the weak side of the formation. Another defensive tackle played a three tech in the gap between the guard and tackle to the strong side. Two defensive ends lined up as five techs to the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles.

The one-gap approach seemed to help NT Neville Gallimore and DT Amani Bledsoe, who never really looked right playing a two-gap front. Additionally, MIKE linebacker Kenneth Murray appeared to play more decisively.


McNeill countered TCU’s 10 personnel package (one RB and no TE) with what we’ll classify as a 3-3-5 alignment on nine plays.

The DL moved back into a two-gap front that included a nose tackle over the center and 4i defensive ends lined up across from the offensive tackles. While Murray and WILL linebacker Curtis Bolton stayed in the game, a lineman came off the field for another LB, typically Mark Jackson. OU set the third LB to the strong side of the field.

The secondary personnel entailed an interesting rub, swapping out starting senior safety Kahlil Haughton for freshman Delarrin Turner-Yell on the back end. DTY primarily stuck with middle of the field coverage, suggesting McNeill and defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks carved out a specific role for him in this package.


Player rotations might offer the best sign of hope for the future.

I didn’t go back to check against past games, but 22 players saw action on D against the Horned Frogs. For a conference game that wasn’t really a blowout until the closing minutes, I reckon that represents a significant departure from the previous administration’s policies.

For example, like DTY, recently-cleared freshman Jalen Redmond got his first major action of the year with seven plays for the day. Defensive linemen also shifted in and out of the game and between positions.

Keeping everyone fresh can only help the D in the long run.