Replacing an NFL-caliber defensive mainstay is no easy task for any collegiate program.
But in an already tumultuous 2020 campaign, Alex Grinch and the Sooners are charged with the responsibility of replacing three key contributors, one at each level of the defense.
Noseguard Neville Gallimore, linebacker Kenneth Murray, and cornerback Parnell Motley have moved to greener pastures in the pros, and as Big 12 play approaches, so begins the effort to fill the void left by the three standout defenders.
That effort starts in the heart of the unit, where Murray led with ferocity over the past three seasons. Brian Asamoah stepped up for Oklahoma in its season-opening win over Missouri State, leading the team in tackles and blowing up several run plays in the backfield. The role of emotional leader appears to have fallen to Asamoah and DaShaun White, who's inherited Murray's middle linebacker position.
Fortunately, neither player will be expected to replicate Murray's production, as Oklahoma possesses a wealth of talented linebackers. But depth necessitates leadership, and Asamoah says that he and White have assumed that responsibility.
"I would say DaShaun and I, we've taken it upon us to lead that linebacker room to a very great path and I believe we've done that job," Asamoah said. "Talking about seven guys in the rotation last week, you don't have that in every backer room. So we've done a great job of bringing those guys along with us and telling them that 'Hey, an opportunity may come despite the circumstances. COVID is out there and you've got to be ready for your opportunity and preparation.' "
Meanwhile, in the defensive backfield, the Sooners are fortunate to return four starters from last year's beta version of the Speed D. Oklahoma named just one captain for each side of the ball this season, and the defensive nod went to junior safety Patrick Fields. Well respected for his acumen and maturity, Fields is among the most prominent locker-room presences for the Sooners, and continually sets the tone for his teammates.
"Pat's the type of guy, he's gonna lead by example," said Delarrin Turner-Yell, Fields' counterpart at safety. "I mean, he's gonna lead on and off the field, in the classroom, you know, anytime you see Pat, he's a guy that is always gonna be doing right regardless. And as a young guy coming in, or even the older guy that doesn't really have that leadership type of mentality or that leadership role, you just automatically kind of follow him and fall in line behind him."
An overlooked but critical storyline is the return of Tre Norwood, who started all 14 games for the Sooners in 2018 but missed all of 2019 due to injury. As the redshirt junior re-acclimates to the speed and intensity of game action, he's also taken on a mentor role for the younger players in the Oklahoma secondary. In a room that includes Bryson Washington, Kendall Dennis, D.J. Graham and Joshua Eaton, Norwood says he's made it a point to invest in the greener defensive backs.
"Just spilling knowledge to them as much as possible," he said. "Just giving them nuggets that maybe I didn’t know as a young guy or that I was learning as a young guy. Just kind of ... give knowledge to them as much as possible so they can be the best version that they can be at the earliest stage possible.
"And then when they become the older guys, it’ll be easier for them to pass back down onto the younger classes coming in. So that’s my biggest thing, just trying to be that leadership role for the back end, especially for the young guys."
In Year 2 of Grinch's Speed D, the hope is that Asamoah, Fields and Norwood will emerge as three of the key defensive playmakers for Oklahoma. But it isn't all on their shoulders.
In the year of COVID-19 and in a defensive scheme historically characterized by a constantly rotating cast of personnel, the "next man up" mentality will remain paramount for the Sooners.
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