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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Defensive position battles to watch this spring

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The competition for playing time at the nickel and defensive end positions looks fierce.

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

We’ve already covered some of the key position battles for the Oklahoma Sooners on offense this spring. Let’s take a look at the other side of the ball now.

Keep in mind that OU tends to substitute more liberally on defense than offense, so players who don’t win starting spots can still earn plenty of run once the season starts.

Nickel

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

Contenders: Jeremiah Criddell, Jaden Davis, Justin Harrington, Key Lawrence, Brendan Radley-Hiles (?)

Nickel presents the most interesting competition out of any position on the entire team this offseason. The outcome likely depends on what kind of player defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wants to see there.

In the last two years, Bookie Radley-Hiles and Tre Norwood didn’t offer the Sooners much in terms of run support. Grinch could change that this season by inserting a more physical presence at nickel. At 6-3, 215 pounds, Harrington definitely fits that bill, as does Lawrence, who filled in at nickel for Tennessee last year.

Alternatively, Davis could slide over from corner if OU prefers a pure cover play at the position. Then there’s the ultimate wild card: Bookie, who has yet to find a new home in the transfer portal. Based on what we’re hearing, the door for him to return has not closed, and it’s still something he’s considering.

For now, though, all signs point to Grinch wanting to bulk up.

Favorite: Harrington

WILL linebacker

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

Contenders: Brian Asamoah, Caleb Kelly, DaShaun White

Not so long ago, the Sooners were struggling to find serviceable inside linebackers. The issue now is picking the best out of a series of good options.

Clearly, ILB coach Brian Odom has no reason to look for a replacement for Asamoah. The junior led the team in tackles a year ago and developed into a solid coverage player when called upon.

But what if Odom decides David Ugwoegbu is the unquestioned starter at MIKE? Does that make room for White at WILL? White held it down there well in 2019.

Caleb Kelly returns to action this spring, too. The affection of the coaching staff for the sixth-year man is no secret.

Asamoah would be well-advised not to slack in the coming months.

Favorite: Asamoah

Strong side defensive end

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders: Reggie Grimes, Jalen Redmond, Marcus Stripling, Isaiah Thomas

Ronnie Perkins played dominant football at five-tech DE in the back half of the season. Figuring out how to replace his production feels like the coaching staff’s most pressing need this offseason.

Stripling’s career arc is tracking a solid trajectory through two years. Playing primarily as a reserve, he notched 3.5 tackles for loss in 10 games in 2020. If he continues developing at a similar pace, we’re talking about a potential all-conference performer in the future.

Stripling’s toughest competition may come from Redmond, who sat out last season to rehab from shoulder surgery. It’s not really a question of ability with Redmond, but more a matter of where he fits best in this defensive scheme. His explosiveness could create massive headaches for opponents if he’s lining up as a three-tech interior lineman. Given the glut of bodies OU has inside, however, the Sooners may get more bang for the buck by playing Redmond on the edge.

Similarly, Thomas may already have a permanent home at defensive tackle after a brilliant 2020 campaign.

Favorite: Stripling

Free safety

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders: Pat Fields, Harrington, Lawrence, Bryson Washington

In some ways, what happens at FS could vary dramatically based on the competition at nickel. For example, if Grinch decides Harrington’s talents would work better elsewhere, a deep safety position feels like a solid fit. The same goes for Lawrence.

Unseating Fields will still prove very difficult. The fact he served as a captain in ‘20 speaks to the respect he commands from the team and coaches. Grinch also seems ultra-confident in Fields’ ability to get the D lined up correctly. From that standpoint, replacing Fields with a more imposing physical talent may not be worth the trade-off.

Favorite: Fields