Lincoln Riley’s offense put on a show in Saturday’s season opening rout over Florida Atlantic, but the biggest takeaway from the day was the performance of the Oklahoma Sooners’ defense. Mike Stoops’ group, which has been frequently (and rightfully) criticized for its inconsistent play over the years, made a statement by shutting down Lane Kiffin’s Owls. This defense appears to be cohesive, and that puts a smile on my face
More Lane Kiffin on #Sooners: “Their defense is much improved and obviously that was their area of weakness last year. I’d be shocked if that team isn’t playing in the playoffs.”— Eric Bailey (@EricBaileyTW) September 1, 2018
It was a big step in the right direction, but as recent history suggests, you should meet any excitement with cautious optimism.
I’ll start with some reasons for why you should be excited. For starters, consider the opponent. Casual fans might hear FAU and not think twice about them, but Kiffin has established himself as one of the top play callers in the nation. Then factor in tailback Devin Singletary, who is undoubtedly one of the best backs in the FBS after rushing for nearly 3,000 yards and 44 TDs in two seasons. OU held him in check with an 18-carry, 69-yard outing and a score that didn’t come until much of the starting D was done for the day. Through the first half, this defensive front consistently got a push, and the linebackers were sound in their gap discipline. Additionally, the defensive backs did a fantastic job of flying to the ballcarriers out on the edge and showed off a bit of a nasty streak.
Another reason why you should be excited about Saturday’s contest is the play of the freshmen, especially DB Brendan Radley-Hiles and DE Ronnie Perkins. Radley-Hiles, or “Bookie”, was a physical presence in the secondary, and more importantly he was in position to make plays. He finished the game with five tackles and added a pass breakup.
The other standout newcomer, Perkins, also made a noticeable impact early and often. On the day, he made four total tackles including a TFL. His high motor is apparent, and if he continues to play at that level over the next few weeks, he can become a player the defense can rely upon.
Long term, the Sooners should be poised for progressive improvement from the defensive side of the ball with only two seniors (LB Curtis Bolton and FS Kahlil Haughton) listed on the entire two-deep, based on last week’s depth chart. That kind of potential continuity bodes extremely well for Oklahoma’s future, as does OU’s recruiting success on that side. This defense is going to progressively become more and more talented over each of the next few seasons.
Speaking of Bolton, he got the start at WILL over Caleb Kelly and took full advantage of the opportunity. We’re still going to see plenty of Kelly, but I don’t picture Bolton relinquishing his role after what we saw yesterday. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s an active player who brings a lot of physicality to the table. As solid as Beal was a year ago, “Buzzy” can potentially be an upgrade — albeit for only one season. If Kelly can also slowly grasp his new position, OU will have two quality players at the same LB position, which isn’t something we’ve been able to say in a few years.
While there were certainly reasons for optimism, one has to keep in mind that the defense in 2017 had its own impressive performances. The Ohio State game and the two TCU contests come to mind. The issue for them was largely about consistency. Oklahoma has to prove it can put together a complete game on defense and follow it up with similar results. Sure, some teams have more offensive talent than others, but with all the talent in Norman, there’s no good reason why the Sooners shouldn’t field one of the Big 12’s best defenses.
With that being said, although the Owls have Kiffin and Singletary leading the show, FAU’s offensive line was subpar. In addition to below-average line play, quarterback Chris Robison, the former Oklahoma QB, looked like the moment may have been too big for him in his first start. I think he’ll be a good player for the Owls moving forward, but he wasn’t ready to let it rip on Saturday. Also, the concerns about his accuracy were justified.
Also, going back to the FAU game, there were a few instances, especially in the early going, where tackling was an issue. Tackling is one part of the equation that has hurt OU in the past, and another is general discipline. It’s back-breaking whenever the defense gets a stop on third down only to give up a first down because of an unnecessary penalty. With how young the defense is as a whole, I expect some growing pains in that area during this early portion of the season, but it needs to be addressed so that it doesn’t persist late in the year.
Overall, this defense has solid leaders in place in team captains Kenneth Murray and Kenneth Mann, plus seasoned veterans like Neville Gallimore and Caleb Kelly. There also appears to be quality depth across the board. Now it comes down to maintaining that hunger and performing consistently as the level of competition steps up.
The loss of Addison Gumbs may indeed loom large, as he had more potential than any edge rusher on the roster. As a whole, however, this defense appears to be on the same page, and it’s a refreshing sight.
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