It’s hard to conjure the visual now, but Oklahoma’s best defensive play in the Peach Bowl last year might have been at cornerback.
Alas, Parnell Motley has graduated.
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and his record-setting receiver corps had their way with the Sooners five months ago in Atlanta, and that’s the lasting image of the OU defense: 532 passing yards, seven touchdown throws and a secondary burned so bad the coaches had to check dental records.
But Motley’s man – Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase – caught just two passes for 61 yards and never got to the end zone. Some of that was Burrow and Justin Jefferson looking elsewhere to pick on the Sooner secondary. Delarrin Turner-Yell’s absence from that game because of an injury, coupled with Brendan Radley-Hiles’ ejection, caused havoc and uncertainty at the safety position.
By that measure, the corners were largely absolved of the bulk of any indignation from a 63-28 College Football Playoff loss.
But with Motley now making his way in the NFL, where do the Oklahoma cornerbacks turn?
Tre Brown is back for his senior year. He’s been a starter since early in his sophomore season – and has been mostly steady, occasionally shaky but on an upward trajectory in his career. Last year Brown made 40 tackles and had one interception. Brown has excellent closing speed, evidenced by his 12 passes broken up each of his last two seasons.
Brown certainly wants to be more consistent, but he is by far the Sooners’ most experienced corner.
The other corner figures to be Jaden Davis, who played in all 14 games as a true freshman and made his first career start against West Virginia. He finished his freshman season with 33 tackles and one interception.
Davis, however, is going to have to win the job. That could mean beating out fourth-year junior Tre Norwood. Norwood started five games at corner his freshman season, then as a sophomore made 12 starts there before switching to safety for the final two games.
During the 2019 preseason, Norwood had all but won the starting job at nickel safety, then blew out his knee in training camp, which opened the door for Radley-Hiles to take over at nickel.
If Norwood is healthy, he will play – somewhere.
“Tre Norwood is doing very well,” head coach Lincoln Riley said in March. “Exceeding expectations on rehab time. … He’s gonna be able to get a lot of reps. He’s done a great job, our medical team’s done a tremendous job of getting him back. He certainly gained a lot of strength during that time, too, which I think is gonna make him a much better player. We’re thrilled to have him back.”
After Radley-Hiles made good progress at nickel in 2019, Norwood’s best chance at playing in 2020 might be to move back to corner.
Either way, the Sooners’ numbers at cornerback remain perilously thin. OU took only three scholarship corners to Atlanta, and all of this year’s top candidates continue to be on the small side: Brown and Davis are 5-10, Norwood is listed at 6-foot.
“Depth is good,” Riley said. “It’s certainly better than it was last spring and it’s gonna get quite a bit better when we get the rest of the class here in June.”
Alex Grinch has been recruiting bigger, taller corners since he arrived at Oklahoma, but it’s going to take a couple of years until any of those guys are in the system and ready to contribute.
Newcomers Kendall Dennis (6-0, 174) or Joshua Eaton (6-2, 175) could be thrust into immediate action. True freshman D.J. Graham (5-11, 194) enrolled in January and might be more ready. Or someone like Woodi Washington (a sophomore who was targeted repeatedly at safety in the Peach Bowl) could get an extended look.
The lack of cornerback numbers could even mean something unexpected, such as Radley-Hiles getting a look at corner if Norwood comes back strong and is able to push for snaps at nickel.
“I think depth, we’re definitely gonna be in a good place,” Riley said. “There were times last spring where, especially at corner, there were some days when it was tough to even get near the amount of snaps that we wanted to get. So we’re gonna be a deeper, more experienced group for sure.”
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