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Oklahoma Football: A new look at nickel

OU appears to be taking a new approach at one of the most important positions in Alex Grinch’s defense.

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

After two years, the decision by Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley to bring on Alex Grinch as defensive coordinator looks like an unqualified success. The Sooners have cut their points allowed per game from 33.3 in 2018 to 21.7 in 2020. In the same period, OU went from 84th nationally to 15th in Defensive SP+, a measure of efficiency calculated by ESPN’s Bill Connelly.

That improvement came primarily using players recruited by the previous defensive coaches. Heading into year three, we’ll get a better idea of what Grinch can do with personnel brought in specifically with his scheme in mind.

One case in point is the nickel position. With Tre Norwood entering the NFL draft and Brendan Radley-Hiles entering his name into the transfer portal, OU is probably starting fresh at nickel in 2021. Even if Bookie pulls out of the portal, the position will likely look vastly different in the fall.

Giving Bookie his due

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

It seems as though little about the nickel position went according to plan for Grinch in the last two seasons. Bookie essentially found himself thrust into the role twice by factors largely beyond his control.

Norwood appeared to be a near lock to start there prior to the ‘19 campaign, but his season-ending knee injury during August practices put Bookie on the first line of the depth chart for the entire season. A year later, Covid-19 safety protocols essentially kept Norwood out of practice in the preseason. That meant Bookie would see the bulk of the work at nickel again in ‘20, with Norwood taking more snaps later in the season.

A player of Bookie’s diminutive stature (generously listed on the ‘20 roster at 5-9, 180 pounds) couldn’t have been what Grinch had in mind for a position suited to a hybrid safety-linebacker. Yet the Sooners weren’t hurting for bigger DBs on the sidelines – they simply couldn’t unseat Bookie.

The explanation why is probably twofold. First, Bookie showed a clear understanding of the ins-and-outs of Grinch’s defense. He rarely blew his assignments, and he appeared to communicate well with the other defenders about what they were seeing from the offense prior to the snap. That ability to adjust on the fly matters at a position where the responsibilities constantly evolve in response to formations, shifts and motion.

Second, Bookie proved to be an effective cover man as a slot corner. He did get beat up by big tight ends such as Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar. However, when matched up in man coverage on typical slot receivers, Bookie routinely clamped down.

The best way to think about what Bookie brought to the table is what didn’t happen because he was on the field. He wasn’t getting cooked in coverage. Receivers weren’t running free because he was in the wrong place. It seems clear that despite Bookie’s lack of size and lapses in judgment, the coaches put a premium on those skills.

The next nickel

The fact that Riley is lobbying publicly for Bookie to return indicates that the coaches still value what he has to offer at nickel. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame Bookie for looking elsewhere when you consider the signs around him.

The frontrunner to win the job at nickel this year may be JUCO transfer Justin Harrington, who missed the ‘20 season with a knee injury. At 6-3, 215 pounds, Harrington looks more like the “Roybacks” from OU defenses back in the day. Watching footage of Harrington playing for Bakersfield College (No. 4 for the team in white), he appears to be enormous for a safety.

At that size, Harrington would seem well-suited to run support and handling tight ends in coverage. A year in OU’s strength program has likely helped in that regard.

Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence will almost certainly get a look at nickel, too. From a physical standpoint, Lawrence (6-2, 200 pounds) is a similar story to Harrington. A blue-chip recruit out of Nashville, Lawrence played nickel as a reserve for the Volunteers last year, although he didn’t make much of an impact in his freshman season.

Then there are holdovers such as Jeremiah Criddell (5-11, 197 pounds) and Bryson Washington (6-2, 197 pounds) who could work into the mix. Criddell got some spot duty at nickel a year ago.

Any way you slice it, Grinch is bringing in bigger bodies to compete at the position. That seems prudent as spread offenses continue to test DB-heavy defensive schemes by giving bigger roles to TEs and H-backs. Note that Bookie primarily stuck to the sidelines in OU’s second meeting with ISU last season, making way for Norwood to tangle with Kolar. The Sooners may see Kolar two times again in 2021.

But it would still make sense for the Sooners to welcome Bookie back. It seems unlikely that any of the new nickel candidates could match him purely as a coverage player on standard slot receivers, so the Sooners could theoretically be exposed by teams deploying four-wide offensive sets and Air Raid principles to exploit favorable matchups. New Texas coach Steve Sarkesian could try that with with the Longhorns’ stable of receivers, for example. Having Bookie on hand for those situations would seem like a plus.

Ultimately, the move to bigger players at nickel should raise the ceiling of the OU defense by fortifying it against the run and minimizing potential disadvantages versus larger receivers. Keep in mind, though, that it’s not a no-risk trade-off.