As good as Oklahoma’s defensive line is expected to be in 2021, it might be easy to forget the Sooners are adding a 5-star stud to the trenches.
That was Jalen Redmond’s rating, per 247 Sports, coming out of Midwest City High School.
Replacing Ronnie Perkins will be big. But now that Redmond is back in the fold alongside Nik Bonitto and Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey and LaRon Stokes and Joshua Ellison — now that he’s back from opting out, now that he’s back from a blood clot scare — how good can the Sooner front be?
“If you go through the numbers in terms of our defensive front,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, “obviously you’ve got to prepare at an elite level to give yourself a chance to have those reps.”
Bonitto earned All-American accolades last year as a rush end. Thomas was called the team MVP and received first-team All-Big 12 honors. Stokes was Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2019. Winfrey was second-team All-Big 12. Ellison was a steady contributor in his first season out of juco. Others, like Jordan Kelley and Kori Roberson, made contributions last year and could be poised to break out. Same for Reggie Grimes, Marcus Stripling and new juco transfer Isaiah Coe — big things could be just ahead for them.
But when a popular, talented player like Redmond returns from a serious illness, then returns from a self-imposed COVID exile, it tends to lift everyone up.
“I’m extremely excited to have him back,” said Thomas. “It was a roller coaster for him, emotionally, I would say, because with him opting out, it was hard on him. Because he wanted to be out there with us.”
Redmond last played in 2019, after returning from a bout with blood clots, and in just four starts led the Sooners with 6.5 quarterback sacks. He also ranked third on the team with 11 tackles for loss. Two of his starts were against Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game, and against LSU in the Peach Bowl, where he had the Sooners’ only sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
“J-Red is a big impact guy,” Bonitto said. “I think the last year he did play he led our team in sacks. He's going to bring that part of it to the table.”
Redmond was 266 pounds when he played against the Tigers. He’s listed on this year’s spring roster at 284.
“Just his hunger,” Bonitto said, “I know he's been waiting to get back on the field. I know when the lights come on he's going to be ready to go. He's going to make a big impact for our team. We're glad to have him back.”
Coach Lincoln Riley revealed in January that Redmond had been practicing with the OU scout team leading up to this year’s Cotton Bowl with every intention of returning for the fall of 2021.
Redmond, running back Kennedy Brooks and offensive tackle Stacey Wilkins all opted out but are back and practicing this spring.
“We knew that Jalen was because he elected to come back and start practicing with us on the scout team during the bowl prep,” Riley said last week. “We knew he was coming back, but we had conversations with the other guys. Their intention was to come back. Yeah, we got ‘em back and honestly now it’s kind of like it never happened. You almost kind of forgot about it. Just kind of back to business as usual.”
And while Wilkins figures to ramp up the competition at tackle and Brooks certainly boosts the talent in the running back room, Redmond’s returning to a defense that improved by leaps and bounds in 2020.
“He knows for himself, what’s best for himself, and best for this team to have him 100 percent both physically and mentally,” Thomas said. “I know it was a tough decision for him, but I know it was the best decision he could have made.
“The strides he has made since he’s been back have been great to see — nothing short of what he was before when he was playing with us. I’m extremely excited to have him back. He puts in the work. He’s curious to learn more. He’s another one of those guys who wants to play more than just that one position. He wants to play inside, edge, all that. It’s very exciting to have him back.”