Can Oklahoma play championship defense without Brendan Radley-Hiles?

Ian Boyd

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Brendan Radley-Hiles, known around Norman as “Bookie” but to me as “Boo Radley” is currently in the transfer portal. Radley has been a lightning rod for personnel and schematic debates around Oklahoma for the last few years. His predecessors at the nickel were as well.

Let’s just review, really quickly, how the nickel position has been handled in Norman over the last 10 years. Humor me because it’s been fascinating.

2011: Oklahoma mostly relies on Tony Jefferson, a star at the “Roy-backer” position the Sooners invented in the previous decade for Roy Williams, a safety-linebacker hybrid. Sooner fans still consider this the gold-standard approach.
2012: Mike Stoops comes in, the Sooners move to man coverage to allow their safeties (Jefferson now and Javon Harris) to play downhill. Gabe Lynn holds the role.
2013: The Sooners move 2012’s dime, Julian Wilson, into the nickel while Lynn replaces Jefferson at safety.
2014-15: Oklahoma moves undersized pass-rusher Eric Striker, a 5-11, 225 pound blur off the edge, to nickel and play a true base 3-4 defense in the Big 12.
2016: Oklahoma tries out 5-star freshman linebacker Caleb Kelly at nickel, it goes terribly, they have to play with JUCO DB Will Johnson in a few games to get through the year.
2017: They settle on Will Johnson as a more full-time solution and scrap their way to the playoffs where Georgia runs them over.
2018: The Sooners bounce through a few options, including Radley, before settling on Caleb Kelly again but with cornerback Tre Norwood converted into a safety to play behind him and cover him up. This solutions gets them by Texas in the Big 12 title game but Alabama smokes 'em with RPOs.
2019-20: Brendan Radley-Hiles takes over and a two-year run ensues of Bradley playing great coverage, disguising the Sooners’ intentions, but also getting beat by big receivers in the red zone at times and committing some of the dumber personal foul penalties ever seen in Norman. I regret not making more of the Boo Radley nickname given his penchant for taking cheap shots akin to unexpectedly stabbing people on the field.

The underlying challenge in Oklahoma has always been balancing edge defense and coverage ability. They’ve tended to vacillate WILDLY between two extremes, evidenced by their multiple seasons playing a true 3-4 defense and then the recent stretch in which their smallest, perhaps least physical defender (Radley) manned the position.

The nickel in the Alex Grinch defense

Allen Kenney recently tackled the question of “how will this impact Oklahoma in 2021?” recently over at Crimson and Cream Machine:

https://www.crimsonandcreammachine....grinch-brendan-radley-hiles-justin-harrington

Kenney’s is a really useful piece for diving into some of the overlooked aspects of Radley’s play as well as summing up the alternative options. As Kenney notes, Riley is lobbying for Radley to come back, this isn’t a matter of the Sooners necessarily recruiting over him with additions like JUCO Justin Harrington (2020) or Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence. At the least, Oklahoma would clearly rather have him around as a multi-positional backup who knows the defense rather than losing him entirely.

Let’s start by discussing the role of the nickel in Alex Grinch’s defensive structures over the last couple of seasons. Oklahoma has been mostly a MEG-quarters (press-man coverage from the cornerbacks) base team who mixes in cover 2, cover 1, and cover 3. Radley’s pre-snap movement often did the heavy lifting for disguising which coverage Oklahoma was using and his post-snap man coverage on slot receivers is the main reason why strong safety Delarrin Turner-Yell has finished second on the team in tackles the last two seasons. Turner-Yell and free safety Patrick Fields were often playing flat-footed on the hash marks at the snap and playing by “check RPO, then run” rules.

Teams would work hard to try and catch Radley with primary run-stopping responsibilities, and while it tended to work out pretty well when they did, but it was hard to do so as an every down strategy because the Sooner defense doled out run responsibilities elsewhere while relying on Radley for his coverage skills.

Trips formations by the offense are where you really see what a unit thinks of their nickel and his role in the defense. Trips formations ask the the nickel to either widen out far away from the box or else stick around while the rest of the secondary rotates over, giving away the defense’s coverage and leverage.

The Sooners used to catch hell when teams used trips against Eric Striker, not only did offenses know he wasn’t going to be asked to turn and run with receivers so they could narrow down the coverages they were likely to see, they could also make it harder for him to exercise his specialty of blitzing the edge. If he went wide, you knew he was getting safety help. If he stuck around on the edge, you knew to watch for the blitz.

Radley-Hiles may have been next to useless on the edge for Oklahoma, but you couldn’t widen them out and get them to give away the coverage. Stick him on a slot receiver at the hash marks or beyond and he was still liable to play man coverage 1-on-1 or drop back into a deep ½ or ⅓.

Kenney and Sooner fans have been witnessing the issues of having a sleight, non-physical option in the nickel for the last few years, but the coverage angle is actually more important. Here’s the dilemma for a typical 4-down, nickel defense like OU against trips:

4-wide dilemma.jpg

The main question is how to help over the top against both sides of the formation. In the NFL, the hash marks are narrower and it’s easier for two deep safeties to legitimately carve up the deep field into two halves and realistically be able to play over the top against anything. Additionally, NFL safeties are much rangier and smarter than collegiate ones and they often don’t have to worry about the quarterback run game as much. Those two dimensions along with the hash mark placements are MASSIVE factors in what sorts of defenses do and don't work at either level.

In a college game, the safeties can stay inside against the slots if they go vertical from 2x2 sets and still potentially help on something like a post route to the outside receiver (maybe, depends on the safety and the quarterback). But against 3x1 “trips” sets, the boundary safety (F) can’t double the X receiver AND realistically play a dig, cross, or a post from the Y receiver. The best safety can maybe play a post from the X and a deeper cross from the Y but only over the top, if the offense runs play-action and sucks in the linebackers he has to be ready to pick someone up shallow.

If you play single-high safety coverage then the safety can play over the top on inside routes but not on routes outside the hash marks, which could include verticals from the outside receivers OR the dreaded “slot fade.”

All that to say, whether you’re a single-high or a two-high team, someone on the team needs to be able to handle himself without help over the top. The simplest solution is to have a cornerback in the boundary who can handle the X receiver without safety help so the “F” in our diagram can look over and help from inside and deep on vertical routes from the slot receivers over to the field. Another solution is to have a nickel who can turn and run with slot receivers so the free safety isn’t necessarily ALWAYS rotating away from the boundary corner when there are three vertical threats opposite. For the last two years, Oklahoma has had both.

Finally, you can drop an underneath linebacker so when the safeties rotate to the field, the corner can drop back like a safety. Normally you’d do this with the jack linebacker. Oklahoma’s jack linebacker is Nik Bonitto, who’s decent in coverage and probably their best pass-rusher, so this is an expensive and non-ideal solution.

So what will Oklahoma do in 2021?

The real question is, “what can they do?” Schemes are dictated by personnel.

Oklahoma’s personnel situation in the secondary for 2021 isn’t ideal unless there are some major jumps in improvement from a few fellows back there. It’s generally assumed Oklahoma’s secondary is great because their defensive numbers are generally very good, but they’ve been feasting on some weaker Big 12 offenses the last few years with a blistering pass-rush.

Last year their pressure and increased knowhow on defense lead to more turnovers, in particular the secondary picked off 14 passes. Here’s the rub though, five picks were by departing senior Tre Norwood who filled in at safety and nickel for the Sooners last season. Another three picks were by Tre Brown, the senior cornerback who’s moving on to the NFL, Radley had one.

At cornerback you ideally want three legitimate players so you can rotate and/or survive in the event of an injury. One of those three should be a true press-man/lockdown sort of player or at least a dependable guy who can hold up 1-on-1 without much help over the top. The Sooner rotation looks like redshirt sophomore Woodi Washington, then junior Jaden Davis, and finally redshirt freshman DJ Graham. Davis has been a mainstay in the rotation the last few years but is small (maybe 5-10, allegedly 185…) and is often targeted when he sees the field. Woodi Washington came on strong last season, but he’s done his best work in zone or underneath coverage and ran a 12.05 100m in high school.

If you’re not familiar with the world of track and field, a number above 11.00 in the 100m is concerning for a press-man cornerback, a number above 12 is a disaster. He’s probably not really that slow, but he’s probably not terribly fast either. The biggest question for OU is whether any of their cornerbacks can handle getting isolated deep, 1-on-1. If not, then the challenge of replacing Radley at nickel is even greater.

Incoming Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence is a big time athlete, at the SPARQ combine in high school he ran a 4.59 40, 4.06 shutte, and posted a 41” vertical at 6-1, 197. He played in just three games at Tennessee last season so he’s not particularly experienced yet but he’s possibly the best athlete in the secondary now. The fan favorite is Justin Harrington, who at 6-3, 215 figures to be able to solve for the issues of run defense and getting posted up in the end zone by Charlie Kolar. As I’ve noted though, if your nickel has to be covered up in the passing game it exposes your cornerbacks.

In my estimation, Harrington is a much better fit for one of Oklahoma’s safety positions, playing more downhill and not having to flip his hips at that size and try to turn and run with people, or even inside linebacker. Good defensive coaches try not to allow first order effects of playing a limited player show up easily, it’s the second order effects where a team will take a hit. Oklahoma fans have been in love with the "Roy-backer" because of their success the previous decade playing 6-0, 238 pound Roy Williams in the nickel. It's an outdated model though now, the only teams you see getting away with such strategies today either have a press-man corner they can leave isolated on the backside (ex: Notre Dame) OR they play with three-deep safeties and a three-man pass rush (ex: Iowa State).

Oklahoma is going to have a blistering pass-rush in 2021 and a pair of safeties in Delarrin Turner-Yell and Patrick Fields with over 40 combined starts in Grinch’s defense. So it may be difficult to attack the Sooner defense, but having weak spots at cornerback who need help is the surest way to get beat badly even if solid or strong everywhere else.

Brendan Radley-Hiles has given Oklahoma flexibility and essentially three starting cornerbacks for the last two years and Grinch has used that flexibility to be aggressive in the middle of the field with his safeties and linebackers. Without guys who can turn and turn with receivers 1-on-1 like Tre Brown and Radley, Oklahoma’s whole defensive concept comes unglued.

Nickel is typically the tip of the spear in a pass defense. How a defense mans the position gives you the answer to what they think will be their solution for denying space from the offense and matching up. Oklahoma’s defense is supposed to be the key to their championship hopes in 2021, how they replace Brendan Radley-Hiles will reveal whether they believe their secondary is truly up to the task.
 

bowman93

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Great article, Ian. Like you said, really curious to see what Grinch does now that he has “his guys”. I’m personally not a Bookie fan (to say the very least) because of the chicken **** stuff he’s pulled, but I recognize his value, as apparently Riley and the rest of his staff do as well.
It’d be great for OU to not have a great option when Texas plays Moore/Whitt/Smith in the slot (however that shakes out) and instead have to rely on bigger dudes who’d be better off covering off a Liebrock type.
 

sherf1

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Good stuff as always Ian.

I do like the ability to cut through a lot of clutter and look at the real money formations/lineups (defending trips) as a shorthand for defensive philosophy when the chips are down.
 
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ttaghorn

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I could be very wrong, but I will state my take before spring even arrives, imho beating OU will be determined by how much we progress in getting our TE or Flex End more involved in the passing game. We have done a very poor job of using that position for the past 8 years or so, and it has been a telling feature in our lack of attacking a D.