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State of the Oklahoma Defensive Front: Spring 2018 Edition

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The Sooners look to improve a unit that struggled in 2017 with new contributors and a solid stable of returning players.

Oklahoma v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Although the defensive front of the Oklahoma Sooners did demonstrate a marked improvement as the regular season went on, the collective unit largely struggled in 2017. There were serious issues against Georgia in the Rose Bowl, and the unit hasn’t been a strength of the OU defense since the 2015 campaign, which has contributed to abysmal performances by the defense as a whole in recent years. I am not going to go through all of them because I do not want to get bogged down in a “FIRE MIKE STOOPS!” tirade because I don’t want to waste your time. That horse was beaten to death long ago. What I am going to focus on is the personnel situation — the departing players, the veterans currently on the roster and, most importantly, the fresh faces who are on campus (or will be on campus) to bolster both overall performance as well as depth on the defensive line.

In addition to the impressive group of youngsters, the OU staff came up big last weekend by earning a commitment from Notre Dame grad transfer defense lineman Jay Hayes. Hayes hasn’t enrolled at Oklahoma yet and could still theoretically change his mind, but — for the purposes of this particular post — we’ll go forward with this under the assumption that he is involved in the future plans.

Departures

The Sooners lost four players from their defensive front following the 2017 season. This includes Matt Romar, D.J. Ward, Du’Vonta Lampkin, and All-American JACK LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. While Ogbo was technically a linebacker, the JACK acts as a de facto defensive end on a lot of snaps and is tasked with rushing the QB, so his departure impacts the defensive front immensely. On top of losing Ogbo, Lampkin is a serious loss, as the the big redshirt sophomore really broke out at times during the 2017 season and could have become a truly dominant force inside in 2018. That loss is quite untimely and puts OU in a very tough spot. The losses of Romar — who missed the majority of the 2017 season — and Ward are not as dire, but both players did provide solid play at their respective positions for multiple seasons. All of this means that the returning veterans and young talent will have to step in and fill the void left by these players. The good news? There’s reason to believe that things can improve — or perhaps not get worse. Additionally, depth may not be that big of a concern after all.


The defense registered only 26 sacks in 2017, which is a huge regression from the 40 sacks the Oklahoma defense registered two seasons prior in 2015. To put this into perspective, Alabama registered 40 sacks in 2017, Clemson totaled 46, and Georgia notched 34 sacks. It is no coincidence that all of these teams were in the playoff last year with these sack totals and could very likely be in the playoff again next year. In order to create a respectable amount of pressure without forcing Mike Stoops to get too blitz-happy, some of the veterans are going to need to make serious strides between Now and Sept. 1.

While OU’s lack of QB pressure and sacks over the past few years has been a cause for concern, perhaps even more troubling is the run defense in that same time span. In OU’s two most important games over the past three seasons, OU has been absolutely gashed in the run game. This has not only led to Mike Stoops losing a lot of hair but also has kept us from winning title No. 8. The two examples, of course, are the CFP semifinal losses to Clemson in 2015 and Georgia this past season. Against Clemson, the Sooner front gave up 312 yards on the ground. In the recent Rose Bowl loss against Georgia, the Oklahoma run defense turned in a similar performance, giving up 317 yards in a double overtime loss to the Bulldogs. On both occasions, a dynamic Oklahoma offense just couldn’t do enough to keep an abysmal run defense afloat (although OU’s run defense really wasn’t bad during the 2015 season). Part of this may be due to scheme, and part of it also falls on linebacker play, but Oklahoma has also had to make due without a wealth of elite on the defensive line. That appears to be changing, but the true impact may not be felt as soon as this season.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of the guys that’ve come through the group over the past few years, but OU sorely needed to up its game on the trail. With some more blue chip recruits coming in as well as high-upside guys coming back from last year’s team, there’s hope for a decent run D in 2018. Here is a look at some key guys that will help with the pass rush and the run defense on the Oklahoma defensive line.


Veterans

Despite the losses discussed above, Oklahoma does have a decent group of veterans returning in 2018, and many of them have significant upside and experience. This group includes Neville Gallimore, Marquise Overton, Amani Bledsoe, Kenneth Mann, Addison Gumbs (JACK), Mark Jackson (JACK/SAM) and Dillon Faamatau. Most of these guys played well in spots at different times but failed to perform at a high level on a consistent enough basis. This is the reason why there were points last year in which it felt like the defensive line went an entire half or more without doing anything to disrupt things or get much of a push at any kind. This was most notable in the first half of the Kansas State game as well as the majority of the Rose Bowl, where the Oklahoma defensive was absolutely embarrassed for the most part. In both games, they failed to pressure the QB or stop the run.

According to embattled defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, the veterans that have made big strides are Amani Bledsoe, Dillon Faamatau, and Neville Gallimore. I think the physical tools are there for both Bledsoe and Faamatau — they both just needed more snaps and general experience. Faamatau transferred to OU from a JUCO before last season and Bledsoe came in halfway through the year after missing the second half of ‘16 and the beginning of ‘17 due to a PED-related suspension. As for Gallimore, he now has the chance to be one of the best players and the unquestioned leader on the defensive line as a redshirt junior, and he will likely be doing so at a new position.

Gallimore struggled with injuries and inconsistency last year after breaking into the starting lineup in 2016. As important as anything is the combination of size and athleticism that he possesses. This gives him the ability to play nose guard (where he has practiced this offseason), defensive end, or a three technique defensive tackle depending on the front employed by Mike Stoops. Not only will Gallimore need to improve on his play, he will also need to lead by example. With his ability to eat up blockers, he will be crucial in creating an improved run defense as well as an improved pass rush. Here is a clip from Gallimore early in the 2017 season, when he was displaying his athleticism and physicality:

A few guys that flew under the radar last year but could have big seasons are Kenneth Mann, Addison Gumbs and perhaps Mark Jackson. Mann has the potential to wreak havoc from the strong-side defensive end position. He had five sacks in 2017 and will look to improve on that performance as a presumptive starter in 2018. Although he may not be as fast off the edge as Charles Tapper was for the Sooners in 2015, but he has good moves on the edge and could have a similar impact. At the JACK LB position, Addison Gumbs appears to be the main guy at this point. Gumbs is listed at 6’3, 235 while Jackson is listed at 6’1, 240. Gumbs has the ability to do some serious damage is he gets a hang of things, as demonstrated in this clip from the spring game:

Jackson played well in spots last year and even registered a sack against Ohio State. The rising junior has a shot to earn the spot come the season opener, but he’s also been getting work over at the SAM LB position. With Ogbo gone, it will be up to Gumbs, potentially Jackson, K’Jakyre Daley and perhaps high-upside freshman Jalen Redmond to apply outside pressure at the JACK position. If the combination of Gumbs, Mann and whoever else can become consistent threats on the outside, Oklahoma’s defense as a whole will benefit greatly.


Waiting in the Wings

Some names that have sometimes flown under the radar this offseason are #SoonerSquad17 members Tyreece Lott, Zacchaeus McKinney and Isaiah Thomas. Lott was a bit of a diamond in the rough coming out of Ardmore and recorded four tackles in the opener against UTEP last season. He didn’t appear in the final six games of the season, but look for him to be part of the rotation at DT. McKinney, a big defensive tackle from Weatherford, TX., and Thomas, a former four-star DE out of Tulsa Memorial, redshirted in 2017 but could earn some snaps in their first seasons of action. Troy James is another redshirt freshman from that class, but his future role is still a bit murky.


The New Guys

After focusing heavily on the secondary in the 2017 class, the Oklahoma coaching staff made a concerted effort to bring in a top-tier defensive line class in the 2018 cycle. The four defensive lineman that the Sooners brought in make up one of the more talented groups that Oklahoma has had in recent years. The group includes DE Ronnie Perkins, DT Michael Thompson, DE/JACK Jalen Redmond and DE/DT Ron Tatum. While Redmond and Tatum were highly-touted homegrown talents, Perkins and Thompson were poached out of St. Louis as a result of the aggressive recruiting of Calvin Thibodeaux.

Thanks to the efforts of Thibodeaux, Oklahoma adds a group of four freshmen who were each blue-chip recruits. As the Oklahoma defensive coaching staff showed with the benching of Jordan Thomas last season, they are not afraid to insert a freshman into a starting spot if an upperclassmen isn't getting the job done.

My prediction is that Redmond —who is on campus this spring — will end up having the biggest impact of that group, and he could do so at either the JACK position or at defensive end. He has room to add on weight to his 6’3 235 frame and has the speed to be a terror on the edge for opposing offensive lines. The Midwest City product only started playing high school football his junior year so the next few months will be crucial for him from a physical and mental standpoint. At the same time, that lack of experience leads you to believe that the sky is the limit.

Luckily for the Sooners, they now also appear to have a talented veteran competing for PT in Notre Dame grad transfer DE Jay Hayes. Hayes is 6’4, 289 pounds and figures to compete immediately at either the strong-side DE spot or the 3-4 DT spot (now presumably occupied by Amani Bledsoe). Although Oklahoma technically utilizes a 3-4 alignment, we could also see plenty of sets out of the 4-2-5 and 4-3, which will have in impact on where he’s lined up. Hayes has the ability to play defensive end in the other alignments and is more of an inside guy in the 3-4 due to his size. Hayes also excelled against the run at Notre Dame, a skill that will hopefully translate at OU. Hayes could thrive — or at least provide depth — in any role as long as he grasps things in time for the season and puts in the work.

In addition to increasing the depth of the Sooners defensive line, Hayes could theoretically provide leadership (if he displays the right attitude) to a unit that is still trying to find its way. Guys like Neville Gallimore, Marquise Overton, and Kenneth Mann could emerge as leaders, but they have not really been in that position before. Look for some of the young guys to look to Hayes because of his experience playing on a top-caliber defensive line at a major program like Notre Dame. Again, that’s if he ends up in Norman, as that isn’t technically official at this point.


Potential Depth Chart

DE: 1. Mann 2. Perkins 3. Thomas/Redmond

NG: 1. Gallimore 2. Overton 3. Faamatau 4. McKinney

DT: 1. Bledsoe 2. Hayes 3. Lott 4. James

JACK: 1. Gumbs 2. Jackson (?) 3. Daley/Redmond

Thompson and Tatum may be headed for redshirts in 2018 but could definitely be serious contributors in ‘19.


Despite the defensive front being a major work in progress, the new talent infusion, along with a few veterans coming back should definitely help. Being ranked 67th nationally in total defense like the Sooners were in 2017 is simply not going to cut it if OU plans on winning No. 8 (even though OU damn near did it anyway last season and probably should have done so), but being able to create disruption up front could keep us from having to worry too much about that. Fortunately, I think if OU can move into the 20-30 range nationally on defense, this team will have a good shot at doing great things. That means solid but not necessarily elite defensive play coupled with the high-powered Lincoln Riley offense we’ve all come to expect. With Mike Stoops at the helm, it’s difficult to ever trust OU’s defense, but improved defensive line play would certainly make things a bit easier for him and ultimately help the overall cause. It now falls on the shoulders of Thibodeaux and Ruffin McNeill to get these dudes playing at a high enough level to make that happen.