With spring practice wrapped up and fall camp now just over two months away, Oklahoma players are using the offseason to improve their place on the two-deep. This series previews Oklahoma’s depth chart position by position.
Midway through the 2020 college football season, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch suggested that junior Isaiah Thomas was the MVP of the defense and should be considered for defensive player of the year honors in the Big 12 Conference.
And Thomas accomplished all this despite not having a spring practice period or a conventional offseason.
So yes, big things are expected in 2021 of Thomas and the entire Oklahoma defensive line.
A year after graduating three seniors, the entire defensive line under tackles coach Calvin Thibodeaux and ends coach Jamar Cain is suddenly the Sooners’ deepest position. There is size, speed, power, experience, talent and depth.
“It can be a fairly deep unit, talking about the front, as we get into fall both on the edges and inside,” Grinch said. “Very comfortable with a lot of names.
“Coach Tibbs better not get used it, but then hopefully we can continue to have those numbers from a quality standpoint.”
To best position themselves for a national championship, college football teams require sustained excellence at three positions: quarterback, offensive line and defensive line. The Sooners have had the first two in abundance — for several years now. But the third element — elite defensive line play — has been missing.
This, then, becomes Oklahoma’s ticket to the program’s first College Football Playoff victory and the Sooners’ best hope to win their first national championship in 21 years.
It’s asking a lot, from backups and journeymen and juco transfers stepping up in 2020 to playing like a national championship defensive line — on the level of a Clemson or an Alabama — in 2021. But the Sooners seem to have the pieces in place to make that kind of jump.
Thomas is the first piece of Grinch’s puzzle, a 6-foot-5, 262-pound fifth-year senior who played multiple positions last year and grew into a leadership role. With Ronnie Perkins out, Thomas played mostly d-end. When Perkins came back, Thomas mostly shifted to d-tackle. He excelled at both and should be a lock for first-team preseason All-Big 12 honors, if not more.
“I’m able to play inside and out,” Thomas said. “With me, knowing my body better than anyone else, I feel like I can add weight and also be able to a force on the edge as well. It would be nice having that extra weight to maintain those guards and centers inside and in the interior.”
“He’s a real inspiration for me,” said teammate Jordan Kelley. “I see myself trying to do what he did last year. He started off as a three in the spring. Then he just showed out. I saw him get extra work day in, day out, getting his weight up, doing the small things to get himself right to have that big year, which he did have. He’s an inspiration to me, seeing another guy from Tulsa doing big things inspires me to just step up and do the same thing.
Senior noseguard Perrion Winfrey showed unnatural strength and explosion in his first year from junior college, but he got better as the season progressed and in the spring game displayed even more improvement. The 6-3, 290-pound Winfrey also figures to be in line for All-Big 12 accolades.
“We’re expecting out of Perrion to be a dominant player,” Thibodeaux said. “He has that type of skill set. We expect big things out of him having a year under his belt. Doesn’t guarantee anything. But talent-wise, he can really be a special player. We look for him to have impact on every game that he plays in.”
At the tackle spot, super senior LaRon Stokes, a former juco transfer, started last year before an injury and appears healthy once again. The 6-4, 276-pound Stokes was Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2019 and came back for his second senior season in 2021.
The first real question is whether 2019 sacks leader Jalen Redmond — a third-year sophomore who opted out of 2020 for health concerns — is all the way back and ready for a full-time role. He added 15 pounds in his year off and expects to be just as explosive and more powerful.
“It's been hard,” Redmond said. “I’ve got a good support system on my side. I know if I need to talk to anybody about anything, I've got people to go talk to. It was hard with everything popping up. I felt like I honestly couldn't catch a break. But I fought through it. I think I did pretty good at handling it. I'm just ready to get back to work.”
Redmond played end previously, so he could rotate there with Thomas or at tackle with Stokes, depending on the personnel and the situation.
“Man,” said Thibodeaux, “just excited because you know that Jalen can find the football. He's a guy that has a knack for making plays.”
After that, the backups are impressive.
Junior Josh Ellison played tackle last year and grew quickly into the role. He could stay there or rotate in with Winfrey at noseguard.
“Josh has had a tremendous spring, you know,” Grinch said, “a guy that certainly played for us last year and had quality reps, but but has really has taken off.”
Fourth-year junior Jordan Kelley also can play both spots after elevating his game in 2020. Another who burst onto the scene regularly last season was third-year sophomore Kori Roberson, who figures to be penciled in with Stokes and Redmond at tackle. All of them will give quality reps when their number is called.
There is much youth but also some experience and impressive ability behind them, and they will all play.
Sophomore Reggie Grimes showed explosiveness and power as a true freshman defensive end last year and flashed again in the Red / White Game.
“The big thing for Reggie is, we don’t need freshman Reggie,” Grinch said. “Freshman Reggie was good enough to get on the field and not make tons of plays. We need him to take that next step. And he’s making progress towards that.”
Behind him, two true freshmen — Ethan Downs and Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge — enrolled early and looked dangerous in the spring game.
“Ethan as a freshman coming in, probably I don’t want to put too much on him,” Grinch said, “but as far along in the process as you could ever hope for the spring of his senior year in high school.”
At noseguard, juco transfer Isaiah Coe, Thibodeaux said, is probably the most powerful player across the entire front line.
And at tackle, third-year sophomore Marcus Hicks is back from injury and looked strong and aggressive in the spring game.
“Marcus is a tough one … coming off an injury,” Grinch said. “You very rarely get a chance to enhance skill set. You’re trying to get back to a level. Trying to get back to a certain standard by which you play the game. So he’s a guy that’s got to elevate, he’s got to enhance from a developmental standpoint. So the verdict still’s out.”
Thibodeaux said having so many players for just three positions wasn’t a problem, but rather means “having great options. You know, you've got guys that can do multiple things and in this defense, you ask for guys to be able to do multiple things, put big athletes out there and let 'em go hunt. It's our job as coaches to put guys in place and let them flourish. We've got guys like Isaiah Thomas who can do multiple things and a guy like Jalen Redmond who can play multiple spots so very encouraged by that. It allows us to be flexible in some of our packages that we come up with.”