Oklahoma spring preview: Defensive line

No position at OU is deeper than d-line, where the defensive MVP is back alongside multiple returning starters and plenty of promising young talent
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NOTE: Oklahoma’s spring practice begins March 22. This series previews Oklahoma’s spring position by position.

Oklahoma coaches have worked hard to build depth on the defense, and it has shown up everywhere.

But nowhere are the Sooners deeper than they are on the defensive line.

“I would love to get used to having the number of bodies that we have in our defensive front that we’re excited about,” Alex Grinch told Sooner Sports TV’s Chris Plank last week.

2021 DL spring depth chart

Even with the early departure to the NFL of standout defensive end Ronnie Perkins — and even counting All-American edge rusher Nik Bonitto among the linebackers — OU’s depth across the d-line is a luxury not many college football teams have.

Now imagine having all those good players — all those capable bodies — and a full spring practice to develop them. That’s something football teams across the nation didn’t have last year, but at OU in particular, that development was sorely missed.

Isaiah Thomas and Josh Ellison

Isaiah Thomas and Josh Ellison

Perrion Winfrey was a junior college transfer noseguard. Josh Ellison was a juco defensive tackle. Reggie Grimes was a true freshman. Jordan Kelley and Kori Roberson flashed potential the year before but had little game experience. Jalen Redmond was a burgeoning star, but chose to sit out last season because of the pandemic. LaRon Stokes certainly could have used an additional spring period to grow his game.

And then there’s Isaiah Thomas, the guy Grinch called the defensive MVP despite having only minimal game experience and only one spring practice last year. He somehow developed into a versatile All-Big 12 performer who started every game — either at tackle or at end.

“We’d better not get used to having as many names as we have that we feel can be big-time players for us,” Grinch said. “And, kind of similar to some other spots: young and old. Guys with some experience and other guys that may not be household names just yet that we’re awfully excited about — and a freshman class to add to it.”

It’s never fair to put expectations on true freshmen, but the fact is that the Sooners’ 2021 recruiting class has the kind of ability that comes with expectations already built in.

Perrion Winfrey

Perrion Winfrey

Among the early enrollees who will participate in spring practice, defensive end Kelvin Gilliam is versatile enough to fill in at any of the three spots, defensive end Ethan Downs has the kind of nonstop motor and attack mentality that will get him on the field somewhere almost immediately, and while defensive end Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge appears like more of a long-term project with limitless potential, his 6-foot-7 frame, long arms and powerful upper body could get him immediate attention in practice. And defensive lineman Isaiah Coe, as a junior college transfer, figures to get action somewhere as Grinch begins to prepare for life without Stokes, Winfrey and Thomas, all seniors.

As the Sooners prepare to open spring practice on March 22, Grinch can’t wait to get to work with d-line coach Calvin Thibodeaux and d-ends coach Jamar Cain to continue to improve the known quantities and develop the newcomers.

“In some cases,” Grinch said, “it’s not a known product just yet.

“We rotate a lot up front, so there’s tremendous opportunities. It’s an exciting group, which also comes with expectations. And so there’s gonna be a lot on their plate this spring.”