As the Oklahoma Sooners' defensive line impressed last season, one man’s impact sometimes got lost in the shuffle.
Though he didn’t contribute in-between the white lines, new outside linebackers and defensive line coach Jamar Cain helped shape a vicious pass rush.
Joining Oklahoma from Arizona State in January 2020, Cain said at the time that joining Lincoln Riley and Alex Grinch’s coaching staff “was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.”
Taking advantage of his new opportunity, Cain hit the ground running.
Breakout defensive stars Isaiah Thomas and Nik Bonitto blossomed under Cain, ensuring the OU defensive front was more than just a one-man show behind the production of Ronnie Perkins.
Thomas said Cain first made an impression by building him up ahead of spring football last offseason.
“The first conversation we've ever had, it was leading up into the first spring ball around this time last year,” Thomas said. “We were walking onto the field and he told me, ‘Take this year and use it for (your) year to be noticed.’ He said, ‘Who's to say I (you) can't be the guy to stand out amongst the rest?’ And then he said, ‘Take it and run with it.' (Cain) said everything that happened in the past, he doesn't care about it, he wants to instill that confidence in me now, so I can be the player that I had the potential to be.
“I mean, from that moment on, I just knew he had the confidence in me to let me do my thing and let me do my job within the confines of our defense.”
After a combined 12 total tackles the two seasons prior, Thomas exploded for 31 total tackles in 2020, including a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 quarterbacks sacks, plus a forced fumble.
And Thomas wasn’t the only one.
Redshirt sophomore Nik Bonitto burst onto the national scene a year ago, earning Pro Football Focus First Team All-American honors for his massive uptick in production.
Racking up 8.0 sacks, Bonitto terrorized Big 12 offenses off the edge, finishing the year with 33 total tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss.
Bonitto credits Cain for helping him take a his big step forward last year.
“Coach Cain is a really solid dude. He's a great coach as well. He's going to teach you the fundamentals of the game,” Bonitto said. “He's going to teach you how to be an even better player or person. You could see that from what we did last year.
“You could see that with what everybody did from top to bottom. I feel like everybody made tremendous jumps. I feel like this year we've got to hold to that standard again and make even more jumps from the bottom to the top.”
As the Sooners replace Perkins in 2021, another crop of young talent will have the opportunity to emerge.
Marcus Stripling and Brynden Walker will see more snaps on the practice field, and true freshmen Clayton Smith and Ethan Downs are battling to make an impression and earn their spot in the defensive rotation come September.
Thomas is confident Cain will be able to yet again get the best out of the OU pass rushers.
“He's a craftsman," Thomas said. "He wants everything to be detailed, and the way he wants it. But I mean, you can put your own little thing on it, but like I said, within the confines of our defense, the No. 1 thing he wants you to do is be confident. Because confidence instills that willpower for you to go out there and do your job and make a play,” Thomas said. “Coach Cain's been everything and then some to me.”
“It's great to have him on the staff to say the least. I love him to death.”