NORMAN — Statistically, Oklahoma can’t improve on defense this year more than the Sooners did last year.
After rising from 114th in total defense in 2018 to 38th in 2019, there’s just not enough spots available.
But the consensus from virtually everyone in OU camp is that this defense will be vastly improved in 2020.
Players now have a comfort that’s built into the familiarity of knowing what to do in their second season under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
“Guys should know their job and know what people are doing around ‘em and things like that,” said safety Delarrin Turner-Yell. “So now it comes down to a playmaking mindset.”
Grinch’s defense gave the players two big things last year: simplicity to know what to do, and confidence to go out and do it. No more waiting at the line of scrimmage for the offense to dictate what would happen on a given play. No more passive zone coverages. The Oklahoma defense last year got back to looking like an Oklahoma defense should: aggressive.
That spilled over to all positions. Now there are eight starters back who no longer have to process what the call is and what their responsibility is. Now everything just feels like second nature. Players not only know Grinch’s calls, they know his expectations. That has changed the way they think about playing defense.
“Just that shift of mindset across the board on defense from the guys returning has just been outstanding,” said linebacker DaShaun White. “I mean, there’s guys just popping up making plays. Guys are so hungry to make plays. And then when one person makes a play, it’s like a wildfire. Like, ‘I can’t let him be the only guy that makes a play. It’s my turn now.’
“That’s the thing I’ve been most impressed with for us as a defense, is just our level of want-to, wanting to make a play and not just focused on doing your job anymore.”
White explained that last year, everyone may have been just a little paralyzed by Grinch’s mandate to just do your job. It certainly paid off — Oklahoma jumped more spots in the NCAA’s total defense ranking than anyone last year — but it also had its drawbacks.
Such as turnovers.
“I’ll speak personally,” White said. “Year One (under Grinch) felt like a lot of, ‘Just make sure you get your job done.’ Like, ‘If you’re supposed to be the C gap, then be in the C gap when you’re supposed to be in the C gap. If you’re supposed to spill the guard, spill the guard when you’re supposed to spill the guard.’
“But I feel personally a lot this year that it’s like, I’m sort of gaining my personality as a player and who I am and things that I’m really good at, stuff like that. So it’s not just about being in your gap, it’s about being in your gap and being in the backfield two yards ready to make a play.”
Turner-Yell echoed nearly the same sentiments.
“2019 Delarrin Turner-Yell and Speed D, Year One together,” he said. “So I feel like that year was just based on getting in the playbook, just based on doing your job the entire time: just doing your job, doing your job, doing your job.
“2020 Delarrin Turner-Yell, you already know the playbook, you know the scheme, you know what guys are doing around you. So 2020 Delarrin Turner-Yell needs to do his job, but not (only) do his job, but finish the play. So, going back to takeaways, not only should I go cover a guy, but I should come down with the football.”
Grinch got tired of preaching takeaways last year only to watch the team fail week after week. In 14 games, the Sooners had just 11 — only four FBS teams out of 130 had fewer. That wore on the players, too. But they say those takeaways will come this year.
“I feel like if we’re gonna do our job, we need to be able to exceed doing our job, being able to get the ball back,” Turner-Yell said. “Because we kind of failed last year at getting the amount of takeaways that we wanted. I feel like that’s why certain games were close and things like that. Because if you’re getting the ball back, that can really determine a ballgame.”
Grinch said he’s seen a difference in the guys even though players weren’t around from mid-March through June. That was actually one of his requirements when players began to shelter in place: don’t come back the same guy.
“We told the guys, we don’t want to coach the same dudes we coached in 2019,” Grinch said. “Don’t ask us to coach the same guy. So if you come back here with any of the same issues or any of the same flaws — then again, the year being the year — you haven’t taken advantage of the time away, you haven’t taken advantage of the meetings, you haven’t taken advantage of the walk-throughs and our time together once we got back together.
Grinch singled out a number of players over the first two weeks of training camp who are practicing at a different level than they did last year, including cornerback Tre Brown, safety Pat Fields, defensive end Ronnie Perkins, linebacker Brian Asamoah, rush linebacker Nik Bonitto and White.
“That’s the idea. That’s the expectation,” Grinch said. “And it’s something that has to happen for us to be anywhere close to the defense we want to be. That final game (a 63-28 loss to LSU) is a nice reminder, that stick-it-right-into-our-face, that’s saying we got a long way to go.”
To get the latest OU posts as they happen, join the SI Sooners Community by clicking “Follow” at the top right corner of the page (mobile users can click the notifications bell icon), and follow SI Sooners on Twitter @All_Sooners.