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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Houston poses major questions for Alex Grinch’s defense

OU will get a stiff test when offensive guru Dana Holgorsen and his Cougars shoot their shot Sunday night.

Milwaukee Bucks v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Given that so much has changed since the last time the Oklahoma Sooners and Houston Cougars took the field, previewing their matchup this weekend feels like an exercise in futility.

Most of the intrigue on OU’s side comes from the debut of coordinator Alex Grinch’s new-look defense. Grinch has supposedly upped the aggressiveness, and reports from preseason practices suggest the players are embracing the opportunity to get after the opposing offense. I’m pretty sure we’ve heard some variation on that coming out of camp for about 27 years running, however.

To complicate matters, new head coach Dana Holgorsen is adapting what he inherited at UH to his high-powered offensive scheme. It probably won’t look much different from what the Cougs were doing under the previous coaching staff, but Holgo the Conqueror is a wild card.

What will that mean for Grinch’s plan of attack? Let’s do some speculating about the major questions to be answered when the Cougars have the ball.

What will Holgo do with a mobile quarterback?

Adding to the mystery around this game, we’ve never really seen Holgo’s offense in action with a multidimensional threat like D’Eriq King behind center. The ex-West Virginia coach generally worked with pocket-oriented passers in Morgantown – Geno Smith, Clint Trickett, Will Grier. Of the few Mountaineer QBs under his watch who could move, none could tax a defense with his legs like King.

A year ago, the brain trust at UH gave King plenty of room to create his own opportunities. He responded by throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and running for almost 700 yards in 11 games, accounting for a total of 50 touchdowns. He finished seventh nationally in passer rating after tossing 36 touchdowns and just six interceptions.

King’s 2018 season ended in November with a torn meniscus, but OU should expect to see UH’s senior QB at full strength this weekend.

What’s the best way to limit King’s impact?

The corollary to the aforementioned question. While we know how dangerous King is, Grinch is flying blind when it comes to scheming for the specific way Holgo will deploy him.

Grinch’s default setting is pressure, so don’t expect him to stray too much from that as he tries to get this defense off the ground. Rather than mush-rushing King to keep him hemmed inside the pocket, look for the Sooners to force the issue with their pass rush and blitzes – at the risk of opening up spaces for UH’s QB to hurt them on the ground.

Grinch may use a spy like MIKE linebacker Kenneth Murray to limit the damage, but that’s not always a great use of resources in passing situations.

Where are the mismatches out wide?

The last time these two teams met in 2016, the Cougars’ physical receiving corps bodied up the OU cornerbacks something fierce. The most likely candidate to pull a Steven Dunbar Jr. this time around on OU’s DBs would be senior Courtney Lark (6-2, 200 pounds).

Although he’s not a blazer, Lark’s size enables him shrug off CBs on inside slants and win deep balls down the sideline on vertical routes.

Lark may merit extra safety attention, but doing so risks diverting help away from speedy wideout Marquez Stevenson. Stevenson earned All-AAC honors last season after catching 75 passes for 1,019 yards and nine scores. We’ve seen Holgo deploy those kinds of receiving combos with plenty of success in the past against OU.

What’s up on the interior of the defensive line?

Talk of the defensive staff playing promising edge rusher Jalen Redmond with his hand in the dirt turned out to be more than just idle chatter. The depth chart released yesterday lists Redmond with LaRon Stokes on the top line at defensive tackle.

Does that mean Redmond will spend most of his time at the 3-tech spot? Given the reliability of OU’s past depth charts, the proper orientation here is “believe it when you actually see it.” He could end up playing more like a 5-tech defensive end in place of the RUSH linebacker in a four-down front.

Either way, Grinch is clearly trying to leverage quicker penetrators up front. You can bet Holgo will look for ways to exploit that with delays and misdirection in the running game.