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2022 Oklahoma Spring Preview: DE

Versatility will be key, and there are numerous candidates, but it's not known yet what Brent Venables will do with Alex Grinch's rush linebacker position.

NORMAN — Part of the mystery of trying to figure out Oklahoma’s new defensive scheme under Brent Venables will be where to classify certain positions.

Primarily, will Venables prefer a three-man front or a four-man front? Odd or even? Dominant in the trenches or reliant on the blitz?

Under Alex Grinch (and for much of the last few years under Mike Stoops), Oklahoma utilized an odd front with a stand-up defensive end/linebacker hybrid — Eric Striker, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Nik Bonitto — and most times it was an undersized, speedy, big-hearted linebacker who was willing to challenge the college game’s mountainous left tackles.

Historically, whether at OU or at Clemson, Venables favors a four-man front.

But the Sooners’ current personnel is built for something else. At defensive end specifically — at least on one side — there will be a period of adjustment.

And that’s where spring football practice comes in.

OU opens spring ball this year on March 22, and until then, new defensive ends coach Miguel Chavis will be building his knowledge base about who he has available and what those players’ strengths and potential can be.

"The biggest thing is, they’re edge players," Chavis said Thursday. "At the end of the day, call ‘em whatever you want to call ‘em, we’re always gonna have edge players."

Chavis pointed out that one year at Clemson, 230-pound Vic Beasley played one edge, while another season, 310-pound Christian Wilkins played that spot.

We recognize different body types, height, weight, skill set, but the biggest focus the two best defensive ends/edge players will play.

"Those are two very different body types," Chavis said. "But I think it’s really a credit to coach V’s defense, that at the end of the day, it comes down to, can you get the edge players to play dominating defense? Can they set edges? Can they peel on running backs? Can they drop? Can they rush the passer? Can they stop the run? Are they good on their movements? That’s the key."

It’s likely that junior Reggie Grimes inherits Isaiah Thomas’ old spot at d-end. When Thomas opted out of the Alamo Bowl, it was Grimes who was elevated to start against Oregon.

But the competition is stiff. Sophomore Ethan Downs flashed loads of potential last year and is ready now for a bigger role. Hawaii transfer Jonah La’ulu is a plug-and-play talent who’s got experience and versatility. His size (6-6, 280) could mean opportunities inside, particularly in pass-rush situations.

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On the other side — what Grinch called the rush linebacker spot — junior Marcus Stripling may finally be in line for a major role. Stripling has been disruptive when he gets on the field, and that includes last year when he stood in as Bonitto’s backup at rush backer.

Clayton Smith and Brynden Walker came to Oklahoma to be linebackers, but they both migrated to the rush spot. They could be better suited to stay there and put their hand on the ground, but with a true four-man front, they could drop back into a more traditional 4-3 outside linebacker position. Both players have plenty of speed and athleticism, and both would do well in new strength coach Jerry Schmidt’s offseason workouts.

Sophomore Kelvin Gilliam is another interesting prospect here. Gilliam played all across the d-line in high school and has the versatility and size to play either inside or outside in college. His young frame also would benefit from the Schmitty plan.

"Everybody has different philosophy, different verbiage they use," Chavis said, "but for us, defensive end/outside linebacker are two edge players.

"You have what you base out of. You have different presentations and different looks of scheme, players and personnel. Everybody wants to see what Coach V wants to run — you’ll have to show up to the Palace here this fall."