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Oklahoma Sooners Football: UCLA game shows safeties still need work

Alex Grinch has two weeks to evaluate OU’s options in the defensive backfield.

NCAA Football: South Dakota at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After three comfortable wins, the play of the front six has given the Oklahoma Sooners reason to feel confident about the direction of the defense under Alex Grinch. That’s fortunate for the first-year defensive coordinator because the issues he inherited on the back end have yet to clear up.

On both sides of the ball, OU worked over the UCLA Bruins in the Sooners’ 48-14 win on Saturday. For the most part, the OU offensive line kept quarterback Jalen Hurts clean in the pocket and opened up holes big enough for the Sooners to churn out nearly eight yards per rush. Meanwhile, OU sacked UCLA sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson four times and tallied six tackles for loss. Those stats don’t account for the many occasions in which the Sooners’ pressure forced Thompson-Robinson to launch the ball out of bounds or tuck and run.

When UCLA did have success, it often came at the expense of the OU safeties.

The inability of Patrick Fields to cover UCLA’s Devin Asiasi summed up the safeties’ overall struggles. Thompson-Robinson targeted the 6-3, 260 pound tight end four times, completing three of the throws for 71 yards. Asiasi victimized the smaller Fields (5-11, 192) on multiple routes in the middle of the field.

The story didn’t get much better in run support for Fields and compatriot Delarrin Turner-Yell. UCLA’s biggest plays on the ground almost exclusively involved a defensive back whiffing on a tackle:

Similar issues cropped up with the safeties in the first two games of the year. So what can OU do to get this fixed?

This would be the point at which the previous staff would probably start tinkering with position switches – trying out cornerbacks at safety and whatnot. A year ago, that worked well for the Sooners in the Big 12 championship when Tre Norwood shifted to safety the week of the game.

That type of move is certainly on the table for Grinch, who also serves as the safeties position coach. The emergence of Jaden Davis at corner, for example, could free up Tre Brown and Parnell Motley to try their hands at new spots. Similarly, Brendan Radley-Hiles could take his talents from nickelback to safety. So could his back-up at nickel, Chanse Sylvie.

Of course, those kinds of short-term patches got Mike Stoops in trouble. The Sooners would find answers for a game or two, but they often led to new sets of problems. In the process, the switches would kill depth at the other positions. Not to mention, guys like Bookie and Jordan Parker already moved to nickel and corner, respectively, specifically because they weren’t working out at safety.

Another alternative: Throw promising freshmen like Jeremiah Criddell, Woodi Washington and Jamal Morris straight into the fire. Although it’s not out of the question, that sounds rash. After all, if there were players riding the bench whom Grinch believed could get the job done – even rookies – they would be out on the field already. (You could say the same about veterans such as Robert Barnes and Justin Broiles, to be fair.)

The good news for Grinch is that he has two weeks to figure things out before OU plays another game. Optimists would point out that Fields and DTY are only in their second seasons. They still have room to grow, and they won the starting jobs in the first place for a reason.

However, with Big 12 play about to ramp up, the Sooners don’t have time to wait on the current starters to develop. Sticking with Fields and DTY may prove to be the prudent course of action, but count on Grinch to evaluate all of OU’s options before the Texas Tech Red Raiders come to Norman on Sept. 28.