SI Sooners Spring Game Wrapup

SI Sooners Spring Game Wrapup

PREMIUM: Oklahoma's secondary will be the key to any National Championship aspirations

The development at the back end of the defense could be the reason the Sooners finally get over the College Football Playoff hump
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NORMAN — This season has been circled by Oklahoma fans since Alex Grinch was hired in January of 2019.

Taking over what was then statistically the worst defense in school history, the conventional wisdom was that his third year on the sidelines in Norman would allow him enough time to recruit players into his system to truly make an impact.

Those playmakers arrived a year early in the form of OU’s defensive line play last year.

The emergence of Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Nik Bonitto alongside Ronnie Perkins saw the once-toothless Sooner front vault themselves into one of the best units in the country.

A year later, Thomas’ emergence and the return of Jalen Redmond means replacing Perkins could be more of an afterthought, putting the focus on the linebackers and a very young secondary.

Mario Williams, D.J. Graham

D.J. Graham battles with true freshman Mario Williams 

But if Saturday’s Red/White Game is any indication, Oklahoma may have the tools on the back end to truly compete in a College Football Playoff Semifinal and contend for their eighth national title.

Even with veteran Pat Fields on the sideline dinging the depth, the Sooner second unit frustrated Spencer Rattler through most of the first half.

Sure, the players will know the OU offense better than any opposition they face during the season next fall, but the secondary still has to cover Oklahoma’s talented wide receivers.

And they did.

“That's the best defense we're gonna see all year," Rattler said. "Our defense is on a whole 'nother level." 

The offensive line held up so Rattler could move the pocket and survey the field, but there were simply no streaking wide outs to be found.

The backbone of the defense that forced two straight stops against Rattler to start the game consisted of second-year players Joshua Eaton, Kendall Dennis and Bryson Washington, as well as true freshmen Latrell McCutchin and Jordan Mukes. Junior college transfer Justin Harrington finally made his debut in front of fans for the Sooners as well on the second drive facing Rattler, though he was playing corner as opposed to safety, where most projected him ahead of last season.

Jadon Haselwood, Joshua Eaton, 2021 Red/White Game

Joshua Eaton rises to defend Jadon Haselwood

Throw in the play of another true freshman in Billy Bowman at the nickel back position, and not only will Alex Grinch and Roy Manning have the ability to rotate like they want, but they’ll have true competition day in and day out at practice.

“I think Coach Grinch and Coach Manning do a tremendous job of teaching coverage and teaching the fundamentals,” Riley said after the Red/White Game. “Whether it's press, whether it's off, whether it's man, whether it's zone — they're just so detailed and they have a great foundation and a great belief system in what they're teaching and our guys, they really do a good job of implementing that with our players and you can just see that.”

Woodi Washington (who sat out with injury) and D.J. Graham will represent the evolution to lengthy cornerbacks, as the two will jockey with Jaden Davis to start for the Sooners.

In limited time toward the end of last season, Washington and Graham flashed about as much on-ball playmaking as Sooner fans have seen on the back end of the defense in a couple of years.

Transfer running back Eric Gray, who's entering the fray from the vaunted SEC, said he was impressed with the level of play he’s seen out of the Sooner defense this spring.

Kendall Dennis, 2021 Red/White Game

Redshirt freshman Kendall Dennis got work at nickel back in Saturday's Red/White Game

“They’ve done a great job, a lot of different things. If you think about it, they’ve gotten better as we’ve gone through the spring,” he said after the Red/White Game on Saturday. “You saw it out there today, how hard they’ve been working even though they had some guys out. They were still playing hard, running to the football.

“We actually had a meeting about it. Saying the defense is running to the ball, then the offense has to pick it up and match their energy, different stuff like that. They’ve done a great job.”

With the Sooners now packing more bite on the back end, the battles every day at practice could prove more difficult than entire games for OU in the fall.

“Everybody's bought in," Rattler said. "They're all running to the ball. It's tough sometimes for the offense in practice because the defense gets going, offense gets going, vice versa.”

As a result, those practices have become more frustrating for Riley as a play caller, but it’s a welcome headache.

“During the actual moment when I'm calling a play, (it’s frustrating), and then the second it's over I'm happy they're on my team,” he said.

If the Sooners reach their lofty goals in 2021, it could be on the back of their evolving defensive back room. 

NORMAN — This season has been circled by Oklahoma fans since Alex Grinch was hired in January of 2019.

Taking over what was then statistically the worst defense in school history, the conventional wisdom was that his third year on the sidelines in Norman would allow him enough time to recruit players into his system to truly make an impact.

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