Oklahoma’s secondary already had plenty of high-level competition scheduled for spring practice.
But with senior safety Pat Fields missing all or most of the action recovering from an offseason medical procedure, it seems as though opportunities have suddenly emerged like spring blossoms.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said Monday morning after the first of 15 practices that guys have ample opportunities to get reps in the defensive backfield, and he simply hopes they make the most of them.
“We got several guys from the secondary a year ago, that aren't around anymore,” Grinch said. “What a great opportunity for for the other guys that are here.
“The most frustrating thing you can have as a coach is if guys don’t make that progress,” Grinch said, “when it’s teed up for them to make that jump and they fail to take advantage of it.”
At the forefront of Grinch’s intentions for this spring is seeing a continued upward trajectory for third-year sophomore Jeremiah Criddell.
“I look back at the entirety of my career,” Grinch said, “and I think back to guys who made a big jump from year one to year two … I don’t know if there’s anybody I’ve been around that’s made a bigger jump between that first year and second year. Really swimming the first year and the second year, all of a sudden you are saying, ‘Wait a second, if he can make that same jump, now we got one.’ ”
It’s not the first time Criddell has had Sooner coaches excited. When he chose OU over Oregon out of Mater Dei, head coach Lincoln Riley went into a raucous fist-pump celebration. Now Grinch is getting that same feeling.
“That’s the challenge to him,” Grinch said. “I think he’s had a really good off-season from a physical standpoint, athletic standpoint, those numbers continue to increase. From a mental aptitude standpoint, he understands the defense and understands the things he’s being asked to do. There’s no reason he can’t make that jump.”
The 5-foot-11, 196-pound Criddell played in just three games as a freshman, then showed last year that he can play big-time college football, playing in all 11 games and earning one start. He was listed as the backup strong safety behind Fields, but then started against Baylor at nickel back.
As Fields is sitting out and the nickel is in flux with Brendan Radley-Hiles transferred to Washington and Tre Norwood declared for the NFL Draft, Criddell can make a name for himself this spring — likely at nickel.
“He’s one of those guys, I think,” Grinch said, “as we go through this thing, that he’s carrying himself a different way, which is a really good thing.
“That’s the challenge to me as his position coach and, obviously, for him individually to do those things.”
Grinch said the return of 2020 junior college transfer Justin Harrington has been good so far. He’ could challenge for time at one of the safety spots, or could step in at nickel. Grinch, however, said Harrington is currently working at cornerback.
The 6-3, 217-pound Harrington looks ready to play after finally taking off the knee brace following surgery to repair an old high school injury.
“From an offseason standpoint, he’s done a tremendous job,” Grinch said. “You see the movement. He’s a guy we are awfully excited about. He’s doing some corner work for us right now. I think it could be a real good spot for him. We’ll see how the depth shakes out in the end. He does have position flexibility that way.
“He’s probably well ahead of what you could hope for. With that, he’s got to get a whole lot better. We’re excited about Justin.”
Grinch is not naturally prone to hyperbole. So hearing him talk up the newcomers should say something.
“It’s as good a group as I've ever been around,” Grinch said. “Let’s throw high expectations on some of these guys — probably not real smart on my part — but I'd also want to challenge those guys. We say that now and it's talking about Latrell McCutchin, you know, we’re talking about about ability. Jordan Mukes out of Choctaw. You got Keshawn Lawrence, who just walked in here.”
Three secondary newcomers — McCutchin, Mukes and Billy Bowman — are early enrollees. Still, color Grinch impressed.
“You know they're gonna screw up because it's their first day — they’re a high school senior,” he said. “A lot of credit goes to them. Jordan Mukes showed well today. Latrell McCutchin as well. So all that stuff, gives you an opportunity, and the good thing is, thus far, they've taken advantage of it.”
And it appears, for now, that Grinch has won the staff battle for the services of Bowman, the dynamic freshman who could help on offense and special teams as well.
“We won that recruiting battle within these walls, which was an important one for us,” Grinch joked. “I think a lot of it stems from opportunity, a place where we could get him on the field and get him a bunch of work. We felt like, as a guy coming in as a mid-year, it made some sense that way. My hope would be that it ends there in terms of the conversation.
“Billy has a chance to do a lot of different things. He’s done nothing but impress from a weight-room standpoint, a speed standpoint. Credit goes to that program at Denton Ryan as being prepared as he walked through that door mentally and physically.
“ … We’re thrilled that he’s in a position on defense right now. We are trying him a little bit at nickel right now, kind of the nickel-safety role which could be good for him right now. We’ll see how it goes. He’s a young guy that just finished his first college football practice when he should be a high school senior. We’re excited about Billy.”