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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Don’t close the Bookie yet on Radley-Hiles

OU’s new nickel gets a fresh start after playing out of position in 2018.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last August, Brendan Radley-Hiles was one of the biggest stories of the Oklahoma Sooners’ preseason practices. As a highly-touted defensive back out of IMG Academy, Bookie enrolled early and wowed OU’s coaches during spring practices. He immediately secured a starting spot at strong safety once August rolled around.

Now a sophomore, Bookie is commanding the spotlight again as the Sooners ramp up for a new season. Junior DB Tre Norwood will miss the season with a leg injury, which eliminates Bookie’s top competition for the starting job at nickel. After struggling through his rookie year, No. 44 stands to make an impact on the defense in his new role.

With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to play Bookie at safety feels like a microcosm of Mike Stoops’ second stint as defensive coordinator. Rather than tearing down the defense and starting fresh, Stoops constantly tinkered with scheme and personnel adjustments. In Bookie, OU’s former defensive architect saw an opportunity to fill a hole at safety and get one of his most talented players involved from the jump.

It quickly became apparent that the role didn’t really fit Bookie’s skill set. The freshman didn’t offer much in the way of run support like you would hope from a safety. That’s not entirely surprising for a player of his size (5-9, 180 pounds), but more surprising was his lack of impact in pass coverage. In fact, his coverage skills almost seemed to deteriorate as the season wore on.

The disappointments of Bookie’s freshman year came to a head in the final game of the regular season at West Virginia, as the Mountaineers torched him in coverage for long touchdowns multiple times. Meanwhile, he did plenty of whiffing when trying to bring down WVU ball carriers.

Those issues had already surfaced throughout the year. By the end of Black Friday in Morgantown, the coaches had relegated Bookie to the bench. He stayed there for the postseason.

So why would this year be any different for Bookie? A handful of reasons.

First, let’s acknowledge that OU’s secondary as a whole was a mess last year, and it was just slightly better in prior years. Whatever Stoops and secondary coach Kerry Cooks were doing back there simply wasn’t working. If you have any faith in Grinch, it stands to reason that Bookie will benefit from the coaching changeover.

Furthermore, the previous regime probably heaped more responsibilities on Bookie’s plate than a true freshman could handle. Safety might be the most difficult position to play in the Big 12, and imagine what it’s like if you’ve never played there before. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Bookie’s head was swimming, especially considering the fact that he began toggling between strong safety and nickel later in the year.

Things should slow down for Bookie this fall. Most importantly, though, he can zero in on a full-time position that better suits his game.

After Stoops was relieved of his duties in the middle of the season, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill often deployed Bookie like a slot corner. To be sure, the freshman had some gaffes in his new role. He played far better in coverage, though, when given the opportunity to line up closer to the line of scrimmage and go straight-up against opposing wideouts.

Grinch should be able to work with that. At Wazzu, he found a variety of uses for his NBs. They took on receivers in tight man-to-man coverage in some cases. In others, they served as force players against the run on the edge of the box. Either way, they lined up close to the line of scrimmage, which is where Bookie is at his best.

This year’s spring game offered a preview of what Bookie may get up to in the fall. He frequently started pre-snap across from the opposing side’s slot receiver before rotating into the edge of the box around the depth of the inside linebacker.

Assuming that carries over into the season, it should put him in position to help track down runners when needed in addition to his coverage responsibilities. Bookie may even get the occasional chance to come after the quarterback.

In the Big 12, it’s hard for a defense to survive without a solid NB. Although last season was a wake-up call about how far Bookie has to go, he can still be a useful player for Grinch and the defense. At best, the position frees him up to become a disruptor and lockdown slot corner.

The bet here is that even though Bookie won’t be an all-world nickel this season, he will turn into an asset for the defense in 2019 and grow into an impact player in 2020.