When Ronnie Perkins was a freshman at Oklahoma, the Sooner defensive front was populated by upperclassmen like Neville Gallimore, Kenneth Mann and Amani Bledsoe.
That trio combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and six quarterback sacks in 2018.
Perkins, meanwhile, produced eight TFLs and five sacks all by himself — as a college football rookie.
Now with Perkins off to the NFL Draft, OU coaches are hoping his production in the opposing backfield (he had 10.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks in just six games last season) can be replaced by another incoming freshman: Clayton Smith.
“He can be really good,” said rush linebacker Nik Bonitto. “Just off the bat, his athleticism — it’s not normal for a freshman. He comes in, he can run, he can jump. He can do all that stuff.”
Bonitto (10.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 quarterback sacks) is the Sooners’ bonafide star pass rusher. Defensive end Isaiah Thomas (13.5, 8.5) is a force on the other side. Smith can be a guy Jamar Cain brings in as a sub, or he could have opportunities as a supplemental pass rusher on the field with Bonitto and Thomas.
“He's a tremendous athlete,” said Marcus Stripling, who moved this spring from defensive end to rush linebacker. “I’ve seen a lot of growth during the spring from him. I can even say a lot of his growth was better than me my freshman year.”
“I’m pretty sure you guys know that from watching his high school tape and stuff, you can just tell: he has a lot of raw ability,” Bonitto said. “Right now, it's more slowing the game down for him and actually learning, OK, how to play, like, how to call. Just slowing it down for him. Once he gets that down, he’s going to be a beast for sure.”
At 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds, it might be a challenge for coaches to pin down Smith’s role this spring and even next fall because he’s versatile enough to contribute at a number of spots. The temptation might be there to try him out a little bit of everywhere.
“Clayton is a long athletic kid,” Cain said. “I don't say he's gonna surprise people, but once he learns how to how to play within our defense, it's gonna be fun.”
“We’re thrilled about Clayton,” said head coach Lincoln Riley. “That’s something you always watch. When you get a kid maybe that you like his potential and what he does early in his career, one, you get to know him and see what kind of person he is, how passionate and serious he is about being successful. He’s a really neat kid. Great family. They were just a joy to get to know.
“And then, as excited as we were when he committed and we got to know him, you see what he’s done his senior year. He’s one of those guys that went from being a very good player to being an elite player at that level quickly. He made a huge jump, which is what you want to see. You see that hunger: ‘I’m not satisfied just because I got a scholarship to a place like Oklahoma. I’m continuing to climb.’ You felt that with him.”
That constant striving hasn’t leveled off during his first semester at OU, either.
“I’ve seen him really take what coach said,” said Stripling, “and apply it every day and try to get better — and want to be better”.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch saw the same thing early in Smith’s recruitment, and Grinch’s enthusiasm about Smith hasn’t waned since he arrived on campus.
“All he did was continue to get better throughout his career at Texas High,” Grinch said. “I have a lot of respect for all the football that’s played in East Texas. He comes from a good program. He made a major jump junior to senior year, which is so exciting to see."
Smith became the No. 5 player in the state of Texas and a 5-star prospect, according to Rivals, and the No. 2 weakside defensive end/outside linebacker in the nation and a 4-star prospect, according to 247 Sports.
“Any time you are recruiting these guys,” Grinch said, “one of the things you mention is, ‘You’d better play like an Oklahoma Sooner. You want to be part of us, the responsibility that you have to your high school program and to you — and to us — is that what you put on film as a senior better look like not a good high school player, but that next step is Oklahoma.’ And he’s certainly one of those guys that did it.
“No, we’re awfully excited about Clayton.”