Like a normal freshman, D.J. Graham didn’t get much playing time early in the season last year.
And like a normal freshman, Graham’s cornerback skills steadily improved.
But unlike a normal freshman, the case could be made that Graham was the Sooners’ most dynamic corner by the end of the season, if not their most promising.
On Tuesday, OU corners coach Roy Manning offered a caveat.
“Nothing about last year was normal,” he said.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Graham didn’t play in the Sooners’ first three games, but his interception against Baylor on Dec. 5 just looked different. Graham played in the Sooners’ last three games, made numerous eye-popping plays, and by the time Tre Brown had opted out of the Cotton Bowl, Graham had elevated himself into a starting job against Florida.
“As that season went on, I feel like D.J. got more and more comfortable with what was being asked,” Manning said on a video press conference. “ … Again, these guys are coming out of high school and all of a sudden, you're thrust into a football game. And so he did mature as the season went on. He did get a lot better as the season went on.
“And yet, he's miles away still. Right? Because, again, that experience of playing is just invaluable. … Obviously, we know D.J. is a talented guy. This spring is huge for him.”
Graham is competing with Jaden Davis, Woodi Washington and, coaches say, Justin Harrington for playing time at the corner spot, as well as Joshua Eaton. While Brown had one side locked down last season, Davis and Washington split starts at the other spot. Harrington is a natural safety after transferring from junior college and sitting out last year with a knee injury. And Eaton is a promising freshman.
But Graham — who Manning said finished with almost 200 defensive plays in 2020 — made a handful of special plays over the final month of the season that seemed to elevate him. Teammates noticed, too.
“Yeah, I think he's just playing fast,” said linebacker DaShaun White. “Like he's eliminated all the second guessing from his game — or a lot of it; I won't say all of it.
“I think that, honestly, that's one of the most important things you can have as football players, like, your ability to process a play fast and just react and go and don’t-second guess and think, ‘Maybe he meant…’ (but instead just) react and go. And I think that that was something that he was doing a lot better. And that he's been doing a lot better this spring as well.”
Even when he was competing with Graham last season, Davis saw something that he recognized in himself from just a year earlier, and said he wanted to do what he could to nurture the talent through his own experience.
“I saw that progression — like, what the same progression I was on — with him,” Davis said. “And I just told him, I said, ‘Just keep going. Just keep going.’ Because like, the biggest difference, I say, between college and high school has to be like, mentality and speed of the game, and DJ was there. He was. At practice, he was at all the plays, he was there to make an interception, he was there to make the PBU — he was just one step slow.
“And that's not an ability thing. That's mentally, working through the game, that's mentally learning to defend. And as the season progressed, I feel — Woodi Washington, as well, he helped D.J. Graham; we both as a unit, along with Coach Manning, he's a great coach — and just, we helped. We (saw) D.J. progressing, progressing, and I feel like he's gonna do the same thing this year.
“I can't wait to see how he plays.”