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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Themes from the recruiting trail

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The Sooners have clearly made it a priority to get stronger on the defensive line through recruiting.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma Sooners put the finishing touches on their 2020 recruiting class last week, as national signing day came and went with no surprises. Overall, Lincoln Riley and his crew assembled a solid group of newcomers that came in 11th nationally according to the 247Sports Composite recruiting class rankings. What the class lacks in name recognition it makes up for in depth – 14 of the 23 signees qualified as blue-chippers with individual rankings of four stars or better.

The biggest storyline of the class was the defensive haul in the first full recruiting cycle for OU’s overhauled defensive coaching staff. A total of five defensive backs in the 2020 group indicates that Grinch sees a need for major upgrades in the secondary. Who could dispute that after watching the Sooner D perform in recent years?

Here are a few broader observations about the class and the team’s roster based on some recent trends in OU’s recruiting.

The attrition effect

When it comes to managing a college football program’s roster, attrition is akin to cholesterol: Some of it is good, some of it is bad, and you likely have big problems if your overall level is too high (or something like that – I’m not a doctor). Some players leave programs because they can’t get on the field, which is generally healthy for the team.

Others leave for reasons that don’t always reflect their talent or ability to contribute. That kind of attrition? It tends to be the bad kind.

To get a better sense of how attrition has impacted the OU program, I came up with a measure for each of the team’s recruiting classes from 2009 up to the present. Essentially, I counted all players who either stayed with the program for four years or left early for the NFL as having finished with OU. Graduate transfers went into this bucket. I counted the rest as washouts, including players forced to retire due to injury.

The attrition rate equals the number of washouts divided the total number of players in a given set of the roster population. For example, 10 of 26 players from the 2015 recruiting class washed out, which works out to an attrition rate of 38.5% for the class. For the four-year period that ended that season, OU’s attrition rate was 39.8% (41 out of 103 signees).

Looking back, the 2011 class seemingly touched off a vicious cycle in the program. Roughly two-thirds of the class washed out, including eight of 11 offensive players in what was seen as a highly-touted group of prospects. In following seasons, the Sooners brought in larger classes to fill some of the gaps left by that group, which required taking more chances on mid-tier projects in the hopes of coaching them up. As these “high-upside” additions went bust, the churn rate on the roster remained high.

Roster turnover has softened a bit in recent years after the rocky patch in the earlier part of the decade. More importantly, OU has cut down on bad attrition. For instance, the 2011 and 2012 classes included highly regarded players who never even joined the team, such as receiver Courtney Gardner and offensive lineman John-Michael McGee. Others like Trey Metoyer didn’t have the option to return.

The Sooners still have the occasional academic casualty or dismissal of a promising player – take Parrish Cobb from the 2016 class, for instance. More often, though, you’re seeing attrition of the positive kind for the organization.

Balancing offense and defense

OU’s attrition produced a second-order effect on the team’s roster. The washouts in the ‘11 and ‘12 classes primarily came from the offensive side of the ball, with 17 of 29 total signees in the two groups bouncing out of the program. Offensive line and wide receiver were especially problematic, which eventually cost longtime assistants James Patton and Jay Norvell their jobs.

As a result of the attrition, the Sooners’ recruiting skewed dramatically towards offense to make up for the personnel losses. In turn, OU stretched to fill needs, as opposed to fortifying positions across the board. For example, the departures of receivers such as Metoyer and Derrick Woods from the 2012 class meant signing up less-than-coveted prospects like Dannon Cavil and Austin Bennett in subsequent years.

By 2014, OU had signed 54 offensive players in the four preceding years to just 40 on defense. That meant fewer opportunities to build depth and a greater sense of urgency to get young players involved.

The Sooners eventually rightsized their numbers in 2016. As of 2020, they’re now tilted slightly to D. That may prove to be a good thing with Grinch still working to fix that side of the ball.

Beefing up the defensive line

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

OU’s inability to land top-notch prospects on the defensive line – the most precious commodities in all of college football – embodied everything wrong with defensive recruiting in the last decade. (Note that for purposes of this discussion, we’re including edge linebackers as defensive linemen.)

Throughout the 2000s, the Sooners usually signed between two and three blue-chippers on the defensive line every year, meaning OU signed between eight and 12 blue-chip defensive linemen during any given four-year stretch. After 2011, that pipeline of highly regarded linemen started drying up.

By the start of the 2015 season, OU had signed just five blue-chip DLs in the previous four recruiting cycles. Those five included Kerrick Huggins, a recruit from the 2013 class who never had a legitimate shot at playing for the Sooners. There were zero blue-chip DLs in the 2012 and 2014 classes.

Since then, the Sooners have clearly dedicated themselves to fortifying themselves up front. For the last two seasons, OU has achieved a four-year moving average of 3.25 blue-chip DLs per class. Meanwhile, players from those classes such as Ronnie Perkins have grown into starring roles in Norman.

The Sooners landed just two blue-chip DLs in the 2020 class, which is sure to raise some red flags among the more pessimistic members of their fan base. Nevertheless, a longer timeline suggests OU’s ability to acquire promising DL prospects has taken a serious turn for the better in the last five years.

That bodes very well for the defense as a whole going forward.