Oklahoma defensive back Justin Broiles has seen a lot in his five years with the Sooners.
When he was a freshman, the defensive backfield consisted of names like Steven Parker, Jordan Parker, Will Johnson, Tre Norwood, Khalil Haughton, Robert Barnes, Chanse Sylvie, Tre Brown, Jordan Thomas, Parnell Motley and himself.
The OU pass defense ranked 87th in the nation in 2017. The following year, they fell to 129th — last in all of FBS.
After a coaching change, the pass defense rankings climbed to 58th. Last year the Sooners finished the year ranked 83rd.
So, some ups and downs, some comings and some goings.
Broiles redshirted the 2017 season, then got into 11 games (five starts) in 2018. He played in all 14 games in 2019 as a backup, and made his only start of the season against LSU’s record-setting offense in the Peach Bowl, when he made a career-high 11 tackles. In 2020, Broiles got into six games and finished the season with six total tackles.
Last week, head coach Lincoln Riley singled out Broiles as someone he thought was having a strong spring practice. Broiles is getting lots of opportunities at free safety with starting safety Pat Fields sitting out with an injury, and he said he’s focusing in and making the most of them.
“Justin Broiles has had a really good spring in our secondary,” Riley said. “I think the best, the most consistently he's performed since he's been here and he's been here awhile. But I think he's in a great spot and doing some really nice things.”
The OU secondary hasn’t done anything yet in 2021, but there are high expectations for the unit — both from the outside and from within.
Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell are both two-year starters. D.J. Graham, Woodi Washington and Jaden Davis are young corners who have made starts and excelled. Jeremiah Criddell and Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence are battling for time at nickel, and 2020 juco transfer Justin Harrington could play any of the five positions and probably will take somebody’s job. Youngsters like Bryson Washington and Joshua Eaton began to upgrade the group’s overall size last year, and that trend continued this year with freshmen Jordan Mukes and Latrell McCutchin. And rookie Billy Bowman has already begun to settle in on defense first.
So what’s different about the secondary this year than previous years from the perspective of a fifth-year senior?
“Just the mentality, you know what I'm saying?” Broiles said Monday during a video press conference. “Just the grit and the want-to. … Because skill-wise, we’re as skilled as we’ve ever been back here in this secondary.
“But even when I got here, like, the mentality wasn't quite what I what I thought it should be, you know what I'm saying? We were kind of OK with just being OK. … And I don't feel that from this group. I feel a group of guys who really, really want to be the best. Like, not second, not third — I feel a group of guys who want to be the best, and you know, that's the biggest difference.”
Broiles is the oldest of the group, and he said he’s seen the standards change.
“With that mentality, there are certain things that we don't allow anymore that we used to allow,” he said. “Like, there's a certain standard of excellence that we hold each other to — day in, day out — that wasn't here before. There’s a standard of excellence that our coach holds us to that wasn’t here before.
“Not to bash anybody or anything like that, but that's just how it is now. There’s a standard. … It’s is a level that we all want to attain, that we all want to reach. And that we all know we can reach.”
To Broiles, one of those standards is the NFL Draft.
“We haven’t had a DB go first round since Andre Woolfolk,” he said, “and that was in ’03. You know I'm saying? So that's what, like — I don’t know for the other guys, but that's a chip on my shoulder.
“I try to let that just spark and motivate the whole unit … the understanding that it was possible, that we can do this. And I feel like that is just a difference, you know what I'm saying? Just the mentality the grit and the want-to.”