The Oklahoma defensive line was the story of the season in 2020, seemingly coming from nowhere to terrorize opposing backfields.
The production on the field may have taken the nation by surprise, but the guys in the defensive line room knew the potential they had.
Adding the junior college transfers of Perrion Winfrey and Joshua Ellison, Jordan Kelley’s triumphant return from injury and Isaiah Thomas’ breakout year paired with Ronnie Perkins to form one of the most disruptive units in the country.
Now entering 2021 with raised expectations externally, defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux said the message remains unchanged.
“I think for us, it's all always about the message inside of these walls. You know when it was bad, we had to tone it out,” Thibodeaux said during a Zoom press conference on Monday. “And now we're getting people telling them how good we are, we still have to block it out.”
“The message comes from our head coach, it comes from our defensive coordinator, and we trust that message. We know we have a lot of work to do but we know that we can really be a great group if everything goes the way as you know we want it to.”
One key to OU’s rapid improvement along the defensive front has been the development of quality depth.
Ellison was a player who made great contributions as a rotational player a year ago, but has even higher expectations for how 2021 will unfold.
“I think his best football is ahead,” Thibodeaux said. “He’s ran with the ones all spring and did a great job for us so we're really expecting big things out of him.”
Actually having real spring football has helped Ellison develop tremendously, he said.
“This spring was really important because I didn't get my spring the first semester I was here, so I was actually looking forward to it,” Ellison said. “I was looking forward to getting this spring to actually up my game a little bit from from last season to this season, and it actually helped me out a lot.
“I’ve been having a little bit more production than I did last year, and the game started slow down for me so I think that's a pretty big jump for me.”
Another guy who came on strong toward the end of 2020 was Kelley. Returning from an ACL injury, Kelley said it took a while for him to feel like himself after being cleared to return to action.
“I got back within six, seven months but I didn't feel 100 percent. I still remember the day,” he said.
Before the initial Iowa State game, Kelley asked the training staff if he could remove the protective knee brace since it was a game day, and they said yes. From that moment on, he was finally completely healthy.
“Ever since then, like I feel back to myself. I feel like I can move again,” Kelley said.
Even the newcomers are getting in on the action, as Thibodeaux outlined junior college transfer Isaiah Coe as a guy who is flashing in practice.
“I tell you a guy that's coming on, he got you know he he didn't practice some of the earlier practices, Isaiah Coe,” he said. “He's probably the most powerful guy in the group, and he's he's just figuring out (that) he don't know what he don't know. But he's flashing, and I'm really excited about him.”
All the competition in the trenches is making guys show out in practice every single day, and it’s benefiting the entire team, Kelley said.
“Man competition is a crazy. With the D-line, it's just everybody going, you know, we're so deep,” Kelley said. “Everybody's trying to fight for that top spot and it's just making us fight and crawl that much harder.
“It's just making the D-line as a whole that much better. And just us grinding in and out every day makes the O-line better, it makes the defense — it just makes the whole team better.”