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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Can the secondary be a strength?

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With four starters returning in the defensive backfield, OU is looking to build on a solid 2019.

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

The play of the Oklahoma Sooners’ secondary went into a tailspin at the same time the program’s reputation for defense really hit the skids.

That’s not a coincidence. In a conference where teams can attack relentlessly through the air, you can’t afford to have any holes on the back end. OU had them in abundance. That turned personnel rotations into random combinations of players, with the coaches hoping to find something that would stick.

OU’s defensive backfield showed signs of stabilization in 2019. The Sooners ranked 45th nationally in Defensive Passing S&P+, a dramatic improvement from coming in 89th in 2018. They shaved a full yard off their per-attempt average in that time, going from 8.4 to 7.3.

In their first year in Norman, position coaches Alex Grinch and Roy Manning identified a reliable group of first-stringers, primarily consisting of roster holdovers. Four of the five starters return in 2020, and some may find themselves feeling the pressure from a group of promising newcomers who have joined the program.

Let’s try to project how things will play out in the secondary based on what we know, what we kinda know and what we don’t know.

Well-knowns

NCAA Football: Houston at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Tre Brown, Sr. - Heading into his senior season, Brown is earning praise from Grinch. OU’s defensive coordinator has singled out the Tulsa Union product as a team leader, and you can count on Brown to lock up one starting corner spot.

Delarrin Turner-Yell, Jr. - DTY was a pleasant surprise in ‘19, and the Sooners felt his absence in their blowout loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. Could one of the underclassmen supplant him at some point this year? Anything’s possible, but surpassing Turner-Yell as a two-way safety seems unlikely.

Pat Fields, Jr. - Fields is a high-floor safety. He doesn’t overwhelm you with his physical attributes, but he generally hits his marks. That kind of reliability counts for a lot when busts have been so commonplace among OU DBs. Grinch clearly puts a premium on his leadership.

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

Jaden Davis, So. - Davis played well in spurts in 2020 as the third CB in OU’s rotation and saw extensive action later in the year as a sixth DB in passing situations. He’ll have to fill Parnell Motley’s sizable shoes this fall. His performance a year ago suggests he’ll cement himself as a more-than-adequate replacement.

Chanse Sylvie, R-Sr. - A socially active athlete who is respected on the team and around the school community. Sylvie played sparingly last year after sitting out ‘18 with an injury. He will have a hard time finding the field in ‘20.

Lesser-knowns

Brendan Radley-Hiles, Jr. - Bookie receives more criticism for his play on the field than he deserves. (Brainless personal fouls are a different story.) That’s life as a hyped recruit. Through no fault of his own, Bookie wasn’t ready to play out of position at safety as a freshman.

Bookie did make more of an impact last season when he could see more of the action from his spot at nickelback. Will he get a chance to build on that progress this year? Any chance he gets a shot at corner?

Tre Norwood, R-Jr. - Norwood’s return to action after a year lost to a knee injury clearly has OU’s defensive coordinator enthused. So much so that Grinch has bandied about the idea of playing him at corner.

Like Bookie, Norwood has experience at multiple positions, a sign he could serve as a utility man in the secondary. The fact that he added weight in the offseason (194 pounds) suggests nickel is in his immediate future, though – the better to help in run support.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Woodi Washington, R-Fr. - LSU performed a proverbial baptism of fire on Washington in OU’s final game of the year. If you were paying attention, the rookie acquitted himself well - can’t find much fault in a player getting beat by superb execution.

This year, the Tennessee native should move from emergency fill-in to contributor.

Justin Broiles, R-Jr. - By all accounts, Broiles is a great guy to have in your locker room. Based on what we’ve seen between the lines, however, his best role has yet to be determined. Perhaps he would benefit from having a permanent home. Whatever the case, the window for Broiles to prove himself as a reliable fixture in the defensive backfield has nearly shut.

Jeremiah Criddell, R-Fr. - We only saw glimpses of Criddell last season. He has the size you’d want to see in a nickelback, but he’s still looking a logjam of upperclassmen ahead of him. It would be a good thing if the Californian could force his way on the field this year.

Unknowns

The freshmen

Joshua Eaton, D.J. Graham, Kendall Dennis and Bryson Washington - the law of averages says one or two of these rookies will have to contribute at some point this year.

Projections

Starters

CB - Brown
CB - Davis
Nickel - Norwood
SS - DTY
FS - Fields
Dime - Bookie

Reserves

CB - Norwood, Eaton, Graham, Dennis
NB - Bookie, Criddell, Sylvie
S - W. Washington, J. Broiles, B. Washington

*At NB, the way Grinch praises Norwood is hard to ignore, and Norwood seems to play on more of an even keel than Bookie. The possibility of Norwood playing CB complicates things, but that seems to make more sense in case of an injury to Brown or Davis.

*Last season, there was no rotating at safety. Woodi Washington should change that this fall.

*Keep a close watch on Eaton. He might grow into a third CB along the lines of what OU did with Davis last season.

*The overall depth of this group looks so much better than the situation a year ago.