Theories abound outside the Oklahoma Sooners football offices as to why the program’s defense has fallen off so dramatically.
Head coach Lincoln Riley has made it clear that he believes a lack of talent lies at the root of the problem. With the first phase of the 2019 recruiting class complete, he’s taking concrete steps to rectify that.
OU signed the bulk of its ‘19 group on Wednesday. The headline names all play on the offensive side of the ball: five-star signees Spencer Rattler, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges. Yet, the defensive provides the depth of the class, which Rivals currently ranks No. 6 in the country.
A dozen of OU’s 22 signees are defenders. Rivals rates seven of the 12 as blue-chip players (four- or five-star prospects). The other five all earned three-star grades.
Remarkably, the Sooners pulled this off despite not having a permanent defensive coordinator in place. If Riley and the OU staff play their cards right between now and the next signing period in February, the Sooners should probably add at least one more blue-chipper on the defensive side of the ball. The strong showing on D continues a trend.
OU entered a defensive recruiting malaise, relatively speaking, around 2010. For about five years, the Sooners were landing a diminishing number of blue-chip defenders in each cycle, instead relying on three-star players to fill the bulk of their classes. The situation reached critical mass in 2014 when the four-year moving average of OU’s annual blue-chip defensive signees fell to 2.75, the lowest point in the 14-year span from 2005 to 2018.
The worm started to turn in 2015, the same year Riley joined the OU coaching staff. Since then, the annual numbers of blue-chip defenders in each class are rising. OU signed eight in 2015, five in 2016, eight in 2017 and nine in 2018.
Of course, bringing more talented players into the fold has yet to translate into better performance by the D on the field. In fact, OU’s Defensive S&P+ rankings plummeted in the last three years.
Riley eliminated one of the obvious through lines in that decline when he cut ties with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. It also seems likely that the D will have some turnover among the position coaches in addition to the new coordinator.
Raising the talent level can only help make the defensive coordinator opening more attractive to potential candidates – and that’s assuming Riley hasn’t already made a hire behind the scenes. More importantly, the quality of the raw materials at the disposal of the next coordinator offers greater assurances that a turnaround is coming sooner than later for the D.
Considering the recent track record, Riley and his staff have done a phenomenal job so far pitching recruits on a bright future for the OU defense.
Assuming OU holds steady through the second signing period, the Sooners will land their third top 10 class in a row. That sounds like no big deal for a blue blood program, but the reality is that OU’s recruiting prowess waned demonstrably in the early half of the decade.
The upside of a run like the one OU is now enjoying? Riley and his staff can focus on building depth, rather than finding new blood to force into the lineup.
That being said, the Sooners addressed two immediate, glaring holes in the roster during the first phase of the ‘19 recruiting cycle.
The play of OU’s safeties this season made it painfully clear that the program is still looking for answers at the position. At least four members of the class can play there: Jeremiah Criddell, Woodi Washington, Ty DeArman and Jamal Morris.
It’s not out of the question that one of the 2019 signees at defensive back could work his way into the starting lineup at safety by opening day. Maybe more than one.
A health scare for JACK linebacker Jalen Redmond from the 2018 recruiting class highlighted the dearth of effective edge players on OU’s roster. The fact that the Sooners were banking on a true freshman holding that position down from the start is telling.
Not surprisingly, OU is loading up on defensive ends in the ‘19 cycle. The crop from early signing day included two bigger players who seem destined for strong side end or a potential move inside, Kori Roberson and Marcus Hicks. LaRon Stokes and Marcus Stripling could probably play on either the strong or weak sides with the right dedication in the weight room. Lanky Washington, D.C., native Joseph Wete is a pure JACK.
Immediate impact player: Criddell
The answer here has to be a defensive back – specifically a safety. Criddell may get a look at cornerback early on, but he can probably get on the field quicker at safety.
To be fair, that strategy didn’t work well for Bookie Radley-Hiles this season. Compared with Bookie, however, Criddell’s skill set and stature (6-1, 185 pounds) fit the position much better. His future lies at safety.
Highest upside: Stripling
Although Stripling is more raw than a plate of sashimi, the Houston product possesses all the physical tools to become a dominant edge player. He just needs a college strength program to help him build on his natural strength and explosiveness.
Give him a little time and you’ll get a multi-year starter at strong side defensive end or possibly a JACK linebacker on the weak side.
Most likely to surprise: Stokes
Stokes has some rough edges much like Stripling. As a JUCO transfer out of Northeast Oklahoma A&M, however, he isn’t entering the program with the same level of fanfare. Stokes could still raise some eyebrows with his contributions next season.
Seeing as Amani Bledsoe’s college career appears to be coming to an end, the Sooners need reinforcements ASAP on the defensive line. Stokes has the frame to add weight and could get involved on the interior right away.