Despite all the new faces stepping into starting roles on offense, the continuity of Lincoln Riley’s scheme makes it relatively simple to figure out who goes where. OU’s defense is facing almost the opposite situation: The Sooners return 13 players who started multiple games in 2018, but how they all fit into the scheme of first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is somewhat of a mystery.
I’d characterize Grinch’s defense as a one-gap 3-4 with the personnel in the front seven breaking down like so:
- Nose guard - DT aligned to the field side of the formation.
- Defensive tackle - DT aligned to the boundary.
- Strong side defensive end - Five-tech DE aligned to the field.
- RUSH LB - Hybrid OLB/DE aligned to the boundary; formerly known as JACK LB.
- SAM LB/Nickel - OLB or fifth defensive back aligned to the field.
- MIKE LB - ILB aligned to the field.
- WILL LB - ILB aligned to the boundary.
With that in mind, my semi-educated guesses for how the defensive depth chart currently stands are below. A few reminders:
- We’re only including players enrolled in the program as of this semester.
- Class designations refer to the 2019 season.
- We’re taking liberties with position assignments in anticipation of moves we believe – or hope – are coming.
- This is not a projection of what things will look like on Aug. 31. It’s an attempt to define the pecking order at the positions as they now stand. Newcomers, such as defensive back Jeremiah Criddell, will almost certainly show up in the mix once we get closer to the season.
1st: Neville Gallimore, R-Sr.
2nd: Dillon Faamatau, Sr.
3rd: Jordan Kelley, R-Fr.
4th: Marquise Overton, R-Sr.
Grinch’s defense values speed, and most of these guys were brought in as space-eaters. Hence, you have a glut of big bodies probably competing for one spot in the rotation.
It’s possible that Grinch and defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux will opt to make use of all that size by playing one of these four at defensive tackle. For example, Faamatau could man the nose, and Gallimore could flex out to the three-tech DT on the weak side.
1st: Ronnie Perkins, So.
2nd: Tyreece Lott, Jr.
3rd: Ron Tatum, R-Fr.
The aforementioned possibility of playing a nose guard at this tackle spot would move Perkins out to end. However, OU’s best defensive lineman seems like he would fit best at the three-tech. That would position Perkins to wreak havoc on the interior if he can handle it from a physical standpoint.
Lott might be in no man’s land in this scheme. If Tatum buckles down, he could grow into a star in this role. Michael Thompson is talented enough to factor in at either of the positions listed above, but it’s tough to envision a guy of his size being ready for spring ball after a June ACL tear.
1st: Kenneth Mann, R-Sr.
2nd: Isaiah Thomas, R-So.
Out of all the positions in the front seven, the scheme change might leave the Sooners most vulnerable at five-tech DE . Mann is a given, but who plays behind him? If not Thomas, maybe put Tatum here? A member of the RUSH LB cabal might also work.
In light of how Mann seemed to wear down a year ago, the Sooners need to identify someone who can spell him throughout the season.
1st: Jalen Redmond, R-Fr.
2nd: Mark Jackson, Sr.
3rd: LaRon Stokes, So.
4th: K’Jakyre Daley, R-So.
Redmond’s health will be one of the biggest offseason stories to monitor this year. His absence on the edge clearly set the defense back in 2018 as OU struggled to find a reliable alternative.
Frankly, any of the three names listed behind Redmond here seem like candidates to play five-tech. In particular, Jackson could benefit from that switch.
1st: Caleb Kelly, Sr.
2nd: Ryan Jones, R-So.
3rd: Nik Bonitto, R-Fr.
Kelly has so much potential at SAM that I believe Grinch will make a spot for him in the base defense. That becomes even more feasible with the declining number of four- and five-wide sets used by Big 12 teams.
Obviously, Jones had a rough go of it last year. He could find himself yo-yoing back to safety. His athleticism seems like a plus in a nickel-ish role, though.
Bonitto might get a look at an inside position. The buzz around him sounds positive.
1st: DaShaun White, So.
2nd: Brian Asamoah, R-Fr.
White earned rave reviews last year as a true freshman, while Kenneth Murray went through some ups and downs – again. Leaving White languishing on the bench just feels like a massive waste of resources.
Meanwhile, inserting White as the starting MIKE clears the way for...
1st: Kenneth Murray, Jr.
2nd: Levi Draper, R-So.
3rd: Jonathan Perkins, Fr.
Murray gave it a go for two years at MIKE. He could make it three, but why keep playing him there when he seems so better off as a WILL? Moving him to the weak side would give him more license to chase down plays from the back side of the D and utilize his athleticism.
Draper absolutely looks the part, but who knows when he will actually get his shot.
1st: Tre Brown, Jr.
2nd: Tre Norwood, Jr.
3rd: Miguel Edwards, R-Fr.
Brown probably played better than any other defensive back on OU’s roster last season. Damning with faint praise in such a miserable year for the entire position group. Still, if there are any sure things in this secondary, Brown is the closest to it.
We’ll see if Grinch and new cornerbacks coach Roy Manning share Kerry Cooks’ affinity for Norwood, who could get involved on third downs as a nickel corner.
1st: Brendan Radley-Hiles, So.
2nd: Parnell Motley, Sr.
3rd: Justin Broiles, R-So.
Here’s hoping the experiment with Bookie at safety has reached a merciful conclusion. He’s such a natural cover player and never looked right in that role. He could, however, potentially shift inside to nickelback when needed.
Speaking of which, Motley is starting to feel like a good candidate for a position change. Mark him down as another potential nickel.
1st: Robert Barnes, Jr.
2nd: Patrick Fields, So.
3rd: Jamal Morris, Fr.
We’ll eventually find out what happened to Barnes on that collision with Alabama running back Josh Jacobs in the Orange Bowl. If he sustained an injury that knocks him out of spring ball, Fields might be coming for his job.
As an early enrollee, Morris also will have a chance to make his presence felt in the course of the Sooners’ 15 spring practices.
1st: Chanse Sylvie, R-Jr.
2nd: Delarrin Turner-Yell, So.
3rd: Jordan Parker, R-Jr.
Who the hell knows.
After missing the entire regular season, Sylvie played a handful of snaps in the Orange Bowl. That raises hopes that he will be at 100 percent in the spring and ready to compete for a starting job.
Jordan Parker is the most intriguing possibility here, but a never-ending string of injuries seem destined to keep him from ever being a reliable contributor.