In years past, the Oklahoma secondary couldn’t afford many injuries, lacking the depth to lose a starter and compete at a high level.
But Saturday will provide a barometer for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s unit.
When the No. 3-ranked Sooners take the field against the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the first time in over a decade, they won’t be at full strength. OU is expected to miss cornerback Woodi Washington, who was labeled as doubtful for the contest by head coach Lincoln Riley on Tuesday.
Behind him, true freshman corner Latrell McCutchin is primed to fill his spot after starting himself last time out against the Western Carolina Catamounts.
A highly rated prospect, the 6-foot-1 product of Austin, TX, finished as the No. 57 rated player in Sports Illustrated All-American’s SI99, but recruiting plaudits mean little when it comes to actually translating talent to production at the collegiate level.
Despite the difficulties, McCutchin has been able to come in and get acclimated fairly quickly to life with the Sooners, which is no easy task.
Linebacker Caleb Kelly, a former 5-star recruit who also came in and contributed immediately as a true freshman, explained on Wednesday during a Zoom press conference the barriers for a true freshman to make an impact.
“I think the hardest thing is playbook and then it’s just the speed of play,” Kelly said. “I mean, the tempos the offenses run, the different dynamics. Especially in fall camp, we go against our offense and so all the different things that Coach Riley draws up, it’s really hard for a young guy to go in and make plays, that’s why it can be surprising.”
Kelly did cede that the position McCutchin plays may be an easier jump from high school to college conceptually, but the physical adjustment is still a struggle for most young guys.
“For a corner and even a nickel like Billy (Bowman) and Latrell, it sometimes — I mean, man is man.” Kelly said. “It’s gonna be man the same. It will be man in the NFL, it will be man here, it will be man in high school. But I mean the different techniques you have to use to become that player, to carry it over, and the different speed you have to play in, it’s nothing they’ve seen before. They’ve always been the best guys and now there’s other guys who can play with them and run as fast as them and make those same plays. And so I think that transition is honestly hard.”
Thus far, McCutchin has been able to handle the step up in competition, impressing on the practice field and earning playing time on Saturdays, Grinch said.
“Our expectation for him is to have an impact,” Grinch said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “There have been several freshmen over the course of time that you don’t even talk about being a possible starter for you let alone going into the second or third game of their freshmen year. In so many ways, he’s ahead of schedule in that way.”
McCutchin is just the most recent example of Grinch and cornerbacks coach Roy Manning’s revolution on the back end of the Oklahoma defense.
Jaden Davis may beat out McCutchin for the starting spot potentially vacated by Washington on Saturday, and the difference will be noticeable.
While Davis has proven he can slot in and preform for the Sooners, the 5-10 junior looks a completely different body type than McCutchin, even though McCutchin arrived just two years after Davis.
Defensive lineman Perrion Winfrey said he’s impressed with how the young DBs have come in and immediately competed for playing time, battling with their older colleagues like Davis.
“They have a great coach in Alex Grinch — we all do — and I just feel like his constant next-rep mentality has gotten to all of us,” Winfrey said on Wednesday. “I just feel like they're constantly growing every single day and learning from their mistakes, and you never see them have a bad day of practice and not doing anything about it. They're always getting in extra work after practice, always getting the extra lift in, always doing the extra needed to take them to the next step.
“I feel like we have one of the best DB groups in the nation, and we just need to constantly put that on display and constantly show how physical we can be on the line of scrimmage — and that unit, and show how good we can be in that unit. I feel like we can be that good, we just have to go out there and show it.”
Players like McCutchin simply being happy to get on the field in 2021 won’t be enough for Grinch, however.
Although McCutchin has impressed to date, Grinch added that the young corner is no different than any other player on the defense, and the expectation is for him to continue to grow throughout the season, and he’ll have another chance to showcase his growth against the Cornhuskers.
“If you’re gonna play so any snaps for us and we’re depending on you, then we need to see the level of production,” Grinch said. “I think we (tell) a young player, and in so many cases a freshman, we keep telling him to prove us right.”
However, through two games, McCutchin has done his part to prove Grinch, Manning, and the rest of the defensive coaching staff right.
“A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is,” said Kelly, “to come in as a freshman and walk around all these people older than you expecting to have the time and expecting to kind of keep you down and you come in and you ball and you do what you need to do.
“Yeah, it’s really good for them to do that.”
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