Two games against outmatched opponents doesn’t leave much to go off of when it comes to early assessments of college football teams. Fortunately for you, that won’t stop us from offering up some snap judgments about what we’ve seen so far out of the Oklahoma Sooners’ much-maligned defense.
The unit as a whole is showing some growth under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. For every encouraging sign versus the Houston Cougars and South Dakota Coyotes, however, the D seemed to provide a reminder of why Grinch’s services were so desperately needed in the first place.
Here are some of the most important observations about the revamped OU defense from the first two weeks of the year.
Kenneth Murray, Neville Gallimore, and Ronnie Perkins are living up to billing.
The three biggest names on the defensive side of the ball all entered the season with major hype for such a lackluster outfit. So far, so good for all three.
Murray’s selection by the media as the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year drew plenty of skepticism, but he has been unleashed as a MIKE linebacker in Grinch’s scheme. His 17 tackles include three stops behind the line of scrimmage. Notably, Murray is enjoying success coming off the edge in some scenarios.
Meanwhile, Gallimore and Perkins have created all kinds of problems up front for opponents. The defensive linemen had their way in the first half of the Houston game, caving in the pocket around Cougars quarterback D’Eriq King on multiple occasions.
The three members of the front six have helped OU raise its ability to disrupt offenses significantly. If they maintain their current levels of play, we’re talking about All-American candidates.
Tackling – especially in space – still leaves something to be desired.
The deterioration of defensive fundamentals hamstrung OU in recent years, and not all of those issues have disappeared. The defensive backs, in particular, still have issues with bringing down ball carriers in one-on-one situations.
(Somebody missing a jock?)
On a positive note, the Sooners seem to be doing a lot more gang tackling this season. Little victories.
Brendan Radley-Hiles and Jon-Michael Terry have found homes.
Bookie’s erratic freshman year raised legitimate questions about the likelihood that he would ever capitalize on his blue-chip talent. For JMT, he never seemed to take to his role as an inside linebacker. Position changes appear to be working out in their favor, though.
Bookie showed out at nickel versus South Dakota with a pick-six and a fumble recovery in a performance that earned Defensive Player of the Week honors in the Big 12. It’s a good sign of what may be in store for No. 44 as he gets more comfortable at the position.
Meanwhile, JMT has played solid ball at the RUSH linebacker position. He’s not making highlight-reel plays, but he clearly knows where he’s supposed to be. His athleticism makes him an asset in coverage, in particular.
Opponents have exposed some of the vulnerabilities to the run.
One-gap fronts like the one preferred by Grinch tend to leave defenses susceptible to big plays in the running game. We’ve already seen examples of that through two weeks. Take the play versus South Dakota below:
OU’s defensive line comes out in an over front with nose tackle Dillon Faamatau (No. 91) in a 3-tech to the field side of the formation and weak side defensive tackle LaRon Stokes (No. 96) playing one-tech to the boundary. On the snap, Faamatau and Stokes slant to their right, while inside linebackers Levi Draper (No. 30) and DaShaun White (No. 23) fill exposed gaps to their left. The Coyotes run a speed option to the boundary, leaving RUSH LB Nik Bonitto (No. 35) unblocked. Bonitto plays the pitch man, so the USD quarterback keeps and cuts upfield. He finds a clear running lane awaiting him because: a) Stokes’ slant into the B gap gives the left guard leverage to seal him off; and b) White’s initial move to fill left runs away from the flow of the play, giving the left tackle an opportunity to get in his way. Free safety Pat Fields, meanwhile, appears slow to read run, which prevents him from filling the newly created gap.
Essentially, the tackle and guard create a vulnerable crease in the front because OU’s call took the players the opposite direction of where they needed to be. Simply put, you’re going to run those kinds of risks in this attacking scheme.
Parnell Motley looks like a reliable coverage player.
Thru 2 weeks, Parnell Motley has only allowed 1 reception on 12 targets in coverage, the best mark at the FBS level. pic.twitter.com/SW4Vyvfy8X— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 11, 2019
A stat from Pro Football Focus was circulating earlier this week indicating that Motley has outperformed every other cornerback in the country through the first two weeks of the season. That sounds hyperbolic, but even the toughest critics of OU’s secondary would have to admit that he is holding up well so far. The fourth-year cornerback has already broken up four passes on the season.
Skeptics will want to see how Motley responds to the inevitable moment when a Tylan Wallace or a Jalen Reagor burns him for a big catch. Motley has allowed those kinds of moments to compound in the past, making him an easy target for QBs and receivers to exploit if he stumbles early in a game. He has maintained an even keel to this point, but much bigger challenges are coming down the pike this year.