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Freshman Follies: The Recent State of the Oklahoma Defense

OU’s heavy reliance on rookies is symptomatic of the program’s defensive issues up to this point.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Orange Bowl-Alabama vs Oklahoma Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a 2019 defensive recruit signing (or have already signed with) with one of the two teams playing for the national championship on Monday night, you’re probably not making much of an impact on the field any time soon.

At least, recent history tells us that’s the reality of enlisting with the Alabama Crimson Tide or Clemson Tigers. In the past two years, two true freshmen, cornerback Patrick Surtain in 2018 and linebacker Dylan Moses in 2017, finished in the top 15 in tackles for the Tide. The Tigers had one, defensive end Xavier Thomas in ‘18.

Rivals ranked all three of those players as five-star recruits and either the best or second-best prospect at their positions in their classes. All were backups in their first seasons on campus. (Moses didn’t record a stat in either of the Tide’s College Football Playoff games last year, for the record.)

For context, the two programs signed a combined 32 blue-chip defenders – prospects rated as four- or five-star recruits – in the last two recruiting cycles. Fewer than one in 10 of them became rotation players in their first seasons on campus.

Rookie mistakes

On the other hand, if you’re a defensive recruit signing with the Oklahoma Sooners lately, you have a decent chance of seeing the field immediately. Consider what transpired in the 2017 season:

  • A freshman who had never played inside linebacker in his life, Kenneth Murray, started every game at the position for OU and finished second on the team in tackles.
  • Three-star cornerback Tre Norwood started the final five games, including the Rose Bowl versus the Georgia Bulldogs.
  • Two more true freshmen, Tre Brown and Robert Barnes, were second-string defensive backs during the entire campaign.

How about the 2018 freshmen?

  • Five-star CB Brendan Radley-Hiles started 12 games at safety.
  • Four-star defensive lineman Ronnie Perkins played in every game and somehow ended up as the starter at JACK linebacker in the second half of the year.
  • Four-star edge rusher Jalen Redmond was expected to contribute at JACK until a blood clotting episode sidelined him over the summer. (That didn’t even stop Redmond from trying to play this season, which probably speaks to OU’s desperation on D.)
  • Three-star safety Delarrin Turner-Yell started versus West Virginia in the final regular season game.
  • Four-star linebacker DaShaun White backed up Murray at MIKE LB all season.
  • When Barnes was knocked out of the Orange Bowl versus Bama, three-star safety Patrick Fields took his place.

Anatomy of a downturn

Do the coaching staffs at Clemson and Bama just value experience more than their counterparts in Norman and elsewhere? Hardly.

A constellation of factors have contributed to the demise of OU’s defense, which could be generously described as “mediocre” the last two or three years. When it comes to matching up with other elite teams, though, it is difficult to overstate just how much weaker the recruiting foundation of the Sooner defense has been from a personnel standpoint.

Bama has come nowhere close to experiencing anything like the defensive recruiting malaise suffered by the Sooners in the earlier part of the decade. In the 10 recruiting cycles since 2010, the Tide have signed an average of nearly 10 blue-chip defenders per year. No dips, no dives, no lulls. (Furthermore, no jumps, no jives, no wails.)

Clemson has seen something closer to an OU-like pattern over time, but the Tigers have enjoyed less volatility from year to year to go along with an unusually high retention rate. (They also hired a pretty good defensive coordinator in 2012.)

Depth over need

Consistently stacking up those hauls on signing day enables a team to recruit for depth, rather than trying to fill immediate needs with more talented youngsters. It seems notable, for instance, that true freshmen have had minimal to zero impact on the Ohio State and Georgia defenses in the last two years.

Equally important, those annual recruiting bonanzas create a virtuous cycle within a program. Lincoln Riley alluded to why that’s important in the aftermath of the Orange Bowl.

“You don’t fix problems in recruiting overnight. You look at that team we played last night. That is years and years and years and years in the making and it takes time to get it like that and look like that. That team looks a little different than we do. I mean it ain’t hard to see that,” Riley said. “But with these guys we’ve got coming in, the development of our program, we’re gonna look like that pretty soon. And even with that, we’ve been right on the doorstep here the last two years.”

The diaper dandies at a place like Bama find their meeting rooms crowded with older players who were touted recruits in their own right in previous years. Those veterans went through the gauntlet of competing against experienced studs for snaps, which is how a player like Quinnen Williams goes from role player to one of the best defensive linemen of the decade in the span of a year.

Meanwhile, the Sooners have tried to meet national championship expectations by hoping that high-upside freshmen can fill in the gaps left by maxed-out upperclassmen.

Recruiting rejuvenation

Of course, if you watched Riley’s teams play the last two seasons, you know it’s not just a matter of acquiring better players on defense. Inexperience only goes so far as an excuse, too.

Hence the whole firing-Mike-Stoops-in-the-middle-of-the-season thing.

OU’s head coach now faces easily the biggest move of his young tenure as he searches for a permanent defensive coordinator. He’ll almost certainly need to hire new position coaches as well. The Sooners have fallen woefully short on the development side of the house.

But better coaching alone won’t cut it. Maintaining an upward trend in defensive recruiting is necessary if OU wants to threaten the Alabama-Clemson hegemony at the very top of the sport.

If the Sooners don’t have to rush rookies such as Jeremiah Criddell and Woodi Washington onto the field in 2019, take that as a sign of progress.