As the Oklahoma Sooners start spring practice this week, the biggest questions for the program surround new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his plans for that side of the ball.
Grinch is inheriting an experienced group that essentially lost one starter after the end of the 2018 season. Considering how little will carry over from the old regime’s scheme, all that experience doesn’t count for much. That’s probably a good thing for many of the players on this roster.
Grinch and the rest of OU’s defensive coaches now get 15 spring practices to begin evaluating how different players work in his system. A few familiar faces could find themselves in new spots on D once all is said and done. Here are some to keep an eye on in the next few weeks.
It wouldn’t feel right starting off a list like this without mentioning OU’s original Man Without a Position.
The battle with Kelly has always been between the desire to get a player with his physical tools on the field and being realistic about his limitations. Fans and pundits have made a point throughout his career of trying to recast him in roles that don’t fit his skill set, such as an edge rusher in the mold of Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Mike Stoops even got in on the act last year when Kelly auditioned at inside linebacker, which predictably turned into a fiasco.
Kelly is an outside linebacker in the classic sense. His best moments on the collegiate level have come when he’s roaming the perimeter and shooting into the backfield from depth. He can take away curl and flat routes, and he defends well against the outside running game.
Kelly isn’t built to man up on slot receivers. He also hasn’t shown he can get off blocks consistently when matched up against guards and tackles. Maybe newly-installed linebackers coach Brian Odom can help him work through that, but it’s fair to wonder if the juice would be worth the squeeze.
Grinch will likely spend part of the spring looking for ways to take full advantage of Kelly’s talents. In light of his defensive coordinator’s history of playing five defensive backs spread sets, Kelly may find himself in more of a specialized role than in the past.
Does it feel to you like No. 9 has been playing out of position for the last two seasons? Me too.
Putting Murray at MIKE LB as a true freshman in 2017 was born out of years of roster mismanagement. He never completely crashed there, but the last two years have seen Murray struggle with the nuances of the position.
OU has another up-and-comer at MIKE in sophomore DaShaun White. Meanwhile, the departure of Curtis Bolton at WILL LB and lack of obvious replacements on the roster create an opening for Murray to make a move. It makes too much sense.
A little more outside-the-box: I wonder if Murray would work in some kind of role akin to the RUSH LB in previous iterations of Grinch’s defense. He has a knack for getting to the QB when he has been allowed to blitz, and he could also throw offenses for a loop with the occasional zone drop on passing downs. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a full-time arrangement, but maybe Grinch tinkers with that this spring?
Perkins impressed as a true freshman last season despite the coaching staff’s insistence on bouncing him around the formation all year. Changing positions so often – and occasionally getting yanked from the lineup altogether – didn’t stop Perkins from leading the team in sacks. (Of course, it only took five.)
Perkins ended the season as a JACK LB in OU’s bizarro 3-4 alignment, but that seemed like McNeill trying to make the best of a bad situation with his personnel. The Sooners and Perkins would both be better off with him keeping a hand in the dirt. But where would that be?
Perkins held up well early in the season rotating with Kenneth Mann at strong side defensive end. He stopped the run well, and his motor on the edge kept the pressure on opposing passers.
Even so, Grinch and defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux have to give Perkins a look at three-tech defensive tackle this spring. In fact, I’d bet right now he starts there versus the Houston Cougars in week one.
Ex-defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks clearly trusted Norwood as much as any player in the secondary. Hence, Norwood transitioned from corner to makeshift safety for the Big 12 championship game and Orange Bowl. Frankly, even though he didn’t stand out at safety in those two games, Norwood proved to be more reliable there than as a CB.
We’ll find out this spring where Grinch and cornerbacks coach Roy Manning think Norwood should play. More importantly, though, it’s no sure thing that they share Cooks’ high opinion of his skills.
Stokes ranked as the No. 6 strong side defensive end in the junior college ranks last year, according to the 247Sports Composite. Assuming the plan is to keep him there, Stokes probably needs to pack some extra weight on his 245-pound frame. He’s liable to get pushed around playing five-tech with a hand in the dirt.
On the other hand, the medical issues plaguing Jalen Redmond could give Stokes a chance to work his way into the mix at RUSH LB coming off the weak side of the formation.
Speaking of which…
Let’s say the health problems that plagued Redmond in his first year have cleared up. If he’s playing at 100 percent, count on him getting a starting nod in the fall.
Redmond was slated to play JACK LB last year, which would translate into the RUSH position in Grinch’s scheme. Could he play five-tech DE instead?
A shifty defensive line of Redmond, Perkins and nose tackle Neville Gallimore might wreak havoc, unless they’re too busy getting pushed around by opposing offensive lines.
Bookie came to OU renowned for his skills as a cover man. Last season made a strong statement about how those skills translate to safety.
Despite Stoops’ faith in the rookie, Bookie didn’t seem to be buying what the deposed defensive coordinator was selling. Then again, he didn’t play particularly well after Stoops was let go.
Bookie arguably needs this fresh start more than any defensive player on the roster. It comes at a time when the Sooners lack for entrenched starters at CB despite the experience at the position.
Alternatively, Grinch might want to take another look at Bookie in the nickel role. That didn’t go so well in ‘18, but Bookie showed the occasional glimpse of brilliance there. Honestly, he may just need to hear a new voice as his position coach.