For the first time in a long time, the Oklahoma Sooners appear to have great depth in the secondary.
Alex Grinch and Roy Manning have gotten their wish, as the OU secondary has added length and track speed under Grinch’s watch.
The emergence of Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham toward the end of last season means there will be a three-way battle for the two starting corner spots well into the season.
Washington and Graham will battle with veteran Jaden Davis for the majority of the snaps, while true freshman Latrell McCutchin and sophomore Joshua Eaton look to factor in as the rotational pieces Grinch strives to have.
Manning said during spring football that the transformation in the secondary is down to the Sooners refusing to settle on the recruiting trail.
“This is Oklahoma and so you should be able to go out and not have to compromise in recruiting. You should be able to get, in my mind, the total package of what you want,” Manning said. “Obviously (we) were deficient in that area and we've addressed some of those needs. But the big message is if are a longer guy, if you are a taller guy, you can't just rely on that. You still have your issues you're going to face.
“The great common denominator is no matter what you you have to play with great effort. No matter what you have to play with great technique. No matter what you have to be willing to battle in there and trust what you're being coached and become the best version of whatever you are. And I think that's our biggest message.”
At no position on the field is the physical transformation more apparent than the nickel corner position. Brendan Radley-Hiles transferred to Washington during the spring, opening the door to 5-foot-11 Jeremiah Criddell and true freshman Billy Bowman to compete for the starting job.
Though he didn’t feature in the spring game, Criddell was highly praised by the defensive staff during spring football for the leaps he’s taken over the past two seasons in Norman.
“I look back at the entirety of my career 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,” Grinch said of Criddell. “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.”
A former 4-star recruit, Criddell hasn’t had a chance to make a major impact yet for the Sooners, but he’ll be able to bring his physicality and cover skills to the Oklahoma defense in 2021 in one of the more versatile roles in Grinch’s defense.
Behind him will be Billy Bowman, who is so athletic that Grinch and Manning actually had to win an internal recruiting battle against Lincoln Riley to get the true freshman to even suit up for the defense.
Bowman flashed great ball skills in the air and the ability to utilize his body in ways that Radley-Hiles was unable too during the spring game, and the hope is that he will only continue to grow throughout the season.
At safety, Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields will finally have some relief.
Oklahoma Position Previews:
Over the past two seasons, no two players have been called upon more by Grinch due to a lack of depth behind them.
But the arrival of Tennessee transfer Key Lawerence and a healthy Justin Harrington should bring some rotation, which in theory will get the best out of all of the Sooner safeties.
Harrington in particular brings a new look to the back end of the defense, as his 6-3 frame paired with his speed is a rare combination in any secondary. But he will have to readjust to the daily grind of the season after missing the entirety of 2020 with a knee injury.
“Justin, obviously, is a really talented dude, gifted and blessed with size and speed and some of those things. This is a little new for him, too. Obviously missing last year, not a freshman, has experience playing, but doesn't have the experience of getting coached here,” Manning said. “Thankfully, he has no setbacks, he moves around great this offseason.”
The coaching staff actually moved Harrington to corner to work during the spring, but the logjam at corner should provide enough depth for Harrington to slide back over to safety come the fall.
Lawrence could be the breakout star for the Sooners this season, however.
A real threat to come in and eat up his fare share of snaps on the back end, Lawrence has the versatility to play all across the secondary, and Grinch knows that, as he recruited him heavily before he eventually signed at Tennessee.
“I recruited him for three years,” Grinch said. “In so many ways, we know more about Key than so many guys who might be signing somewhere else today. He’ll have an opportunity to compete in that way as he would have if he signed here a year ago, which I tell him he should have.”
As the Sooners look to climb their way back atop the college football world, they may finally have a shot at touting championship-caliber depth on the back end of the defense in 2021.