With Tre Norwood back, Alex Grinch and the OU defense are all feeling much better

John. E. Hoover

Alex Grinch had high hopes for Tre Norwood in his first season as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator.

Tre Norwood - Texas
Tre Norwood vs. TexasKevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

But less than a week into practice, Grinch portrayed someone who was down in the dumbs after finding himself without Norwood’s services for the entire 2019 season.

“I feel sick for him,” Grinch said in August 2019, just days after Norwood was lost for the season with a knee injury. “He worked his tail off since we had a chance to start working together in January. He was kinda the Swiss Army knife for us in the spring, and then (we were) reminded that there’s a Saturday for us where he played corner for us, safety for us, nickel for us all in the same practice. And oh, by the way, we just installed a new defense. He had a tremendous summer and a couple of good days in fall camp and it’s just unfortunate what happened.”

Now, 13 months later, Norwood is healthy and back on the football field. Having missed a valuable opportunity to continue his comeback when spring practice was canceled, Norwood is now getting back to game shape in actual games. The backup cornerback made one tackle in last week’s 48-0 victory over Missouri State in the Sooners’ 2020 season opener.

But he won't forget Grinch’s sentiments from last year.

“It was the player-coach relationship that, me individually, I look for,” Norwood said this week on a video press conference. “We don’t have to be best friends, but he’s one of those type coaches that he’s gonna make sure that he gets the best out of us individually as players, and as a player, you have to love a coach like that. No matter what, each and every day, he’s gonna push you to be better. He’s gonna push you to develop.

“And I think just from the first spring that I had with him (in 2019), I could just tell as an individual, my game elevated each and every day on so many different levels, just because he hones in on details, he hones in on technique. And especially as a defensive back, you have to have that.”

Once a starter at corner, Norwood has also played safety and was expected to start at nickel back last preseason before the knee injury. Teammates have talked up Norwood ever since practice began in July.

“It’s always good whenever you can have a guy like Tre Norwood back, a guy that can produce on the back end and things like that,” said safety Delarrin Turner-Yell. “I’m excited to see what he can do for us this year.”

“He’s looked really good coming back from an ACL injury,” said corner Tre Brown. “Some guys maybe lose a step or something, but he hasn’t lost anything at all. He’s gained a step.”

Tre Norwood - TCU
Tre Norwood vs. TCUTim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not all Norwood has gained. He’s also added 10 pounds of muscle since last year, now up to 194 pounds.

“It feels good,” Norwood said. “Ever since I was a freshman, that’s always been a key thing. I finally feel I’m to that point where I want to be. That was another benefit from the recovery process, was being able to spend extra time in the weight room and with the strength staff. That’s something I benefited from extremely. It shows, personally to me, I feel better on the field having that extra weight and extra strength when I’m out there competing.”

“He certainly gained a lot of strength during that time, too,” Lincoln Riley said in March, “which I think is gonna make him a much better player.”

Norwood said he took care of business while rehabbing — not just his knee, not just hitting the weights, but being present at meetings and in the film room. That assiduous approach to learning Grinch’s system benefits him today.

“The mental part was tough and something I had to gradually grow with,” he said. “Throughout the process, it helped me out a lot, going into the season being able to take those mental reps each and every practice, sitting in the meetings and still getting the notes and corrections as if I was playing — even though I couldn’t physically be out there.

“It helped on the back end of me coming into this offseason, coming into this season and not having to relearn or catchup on everything or what the defense was doing because I was always in those meetings and being at practice every day, learning.”

Grinch said during training camp last month that Norwood had gotten looks “at all five positions” in the secondary. He said having Norwood back this year was like opening a forgotten gift.

“Oh yeah, hey, remember this guy?” Grinch said. “Oh, by the way, he was just positioned to be one of the starters on the defense. One of the guys that we were excited about that we didn’t have a chance to use last year.”

In 2018, Norwood started all 14 games and made 58 tackles (38 solo) with one sack, one interception and five pass breakups. His interception came at a good time — during OU’s Big 12 championship victory over Texas.

There’s still a journey ahead to get back to that kind of productivity, but his teammates are eager to see it.

“Just seeing him out there flying around and having an extra leader out there because, you know, he’s also one of the old guys,” Brown said. “He’s played since his freshman year. That helps us with our depth and going into the future. Just know we’re going to have a lot of leaders on this team. With him back, there’s a lot of plays that are going to be made.”

“That’s my guy, that’s my brother,” said nickel back Brendan Radley-Hiles. “Right when I got here at OU, he took me under his wing and we’ve been close every single day. We talk every single day, on and off the field. He’s just a big brother. He does things correctly. He’s just a person you want to be around. When he was down last year, he was a person who was here at all costs, making sure his efforts were showing and present. When he’s back up, he’s the same guy. He’s the same guy at all costs. He’s a standup, true dude. That’s T-Wood. That’s my brother.”

Norwood felt that love last Saturday as the Sooners took the field against Missouri State.

“I was just happy to be back out there, being that I hadn’t been in a live game with my brothers for a long time,” he said. “Just being able to be out there and to contribute in any way possible, it was very exciting. The main part was just being out there and playing the game I love. It’s something I won’t take for granted and will continue to just grow and get better.”

Said Riley, “We’re thrilled to have him back.”

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