Gone are the days of merely hoping the Oklahoma defensive line shows up.
Not only are they expected to be a strength of the team in 2021, the Sooners are embracing expectations of being one of the most dynamic units in the country just three years after Alex Grinch took the defensive helm.
Only losing Ronnie Perkins from last year’s pass rush, Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Nik Bonitto are projected as a three-headed monster primed to terrorize opponents in the backfield this season.
The OU defensive line isn’t shying away from those expectations either, said Bonitto.
“I feel like we take pride in that. Every time we step on the field during fall camp, during any game, we're always going to have that mentality because I feel like we've since we've gotten on campus, we've gotten better every day,” he said during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “Last year we started to prove like, 'OK, like we can really be like one of the best D-lines in college football. And now the expectation is this year that we got to be dominant.”
Oklahoma’s pass rush was far from a one-trick pony in 2020, too.
They’ll have to replace Perkins’ 5.5 sacks in limited action, but Grinch returns Bonitto who brought down the opposing quarterback 8.5 times, Thomas (8), as well as DaShaun White and Marcus Stripling who logged 2.5 sacks each, and Brian Asamoah who had 2.0 sacks to his name, as well as three other defensive lineman who each had a sack.
The emergence of quality depth will allow OU to come at opposing offenses in waves again in 2021.
“We feel like we are close to 7-8 guys who can go into a game inside and, not only take reps, but make plays. That’s been awesome going into fall camp,” defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux said during his post-practice press conference on Tuesday. “We have some depth, we have some talent and we have experience.”
Another fan of the defense’s development, especially in the trenches, is Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
On Tuesday, Bedenbaugh said the d-line’s growth has been undeniable, and it’s been a great asset to help him continue to develop his offensive line by competing every day in practice.
“It’s a battle every play for whatever it is, 10-15 guys. The second guy comes, third guy comes in, which I love,” Bedenbaugh said. “Because that is making us better. We have got to battle and compete each and every single play. There’s no doubt in my time here, it’s as deep as I’ve seen it. Talented, big, athletic and challenging as I’ve seen it since I’ve been here.”
Bonitto said he’s excited for the depth, because it makes everyone’s job on the defense that much easier over the course of four quarters.
“If you have depth, it's just a long day for the offense. An O-lineman, it's scary when you can take one guy out and you can bring in another guy who is just as good, even better at specific areas and that's just a tough time for an offense,” Bonitto said. “I feel like it benefits us because whenever we're on the field, we're gonna be 100 percent, and if we're not, we can get the next guy in and there's no drop-off. I feel like it's a real good benefit to have on the defense.”
While Bonitto is pleased with their progress, he said the defensive line cannot get complacent as they push on through camp.
“We can only go up from here. I feel like so far, we've done a good job of that but we still have a long way to go before we can call ourselves elite,” he said. “We've just gotta keep working.”
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