Will Oklahoma's speed D reign supreme in 2021?

Ian Boyd

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One of the less surprising developments of the last few years in Big 12 play was when the 2019 Oklahoma Sooners proved to have better weapons along the defensive line for Alex Grinch than expected. For the previous few years the Sooners had lost several recruiting battles along the defensive line because Mike Stoops’ 3-4 defense had turned several athletes into heavy cloggers inside.

However lost amidst some of the higher profile recruiting losses were two facts. First, Oklahoma kept routinely losing promising defensive tackles to the NFL and often a year earlier than would seem advisable. Yet the next season they’d still be able to plug in another NFL caliber athlete. Secondly, the guys Oklahoma was recruiting were all still pretty promising athletes.

So Grinch’s move to downsize across the unit and attack opponents with speed yielded immediate results when it turned out Neville Gallimore, Jalen Redmond, Ronnie Perkins, and Kenneth Murray were actually an impressive foursome if allowed to attack offenses. Only one of those guys even played for Oklahoma in 2020, and missed multiple games (Ronnie Perkins), but the Sooners became even more deadly up front.

Here’s how their main six positions in the nickel front have looked over the last few years.

OU nickel front havoc.jpg

There’s some missing context here but it’s at least plain enough the Sooners started creating a lot more negative plays against the run game in 2019 with Grinch’s “speed D” system and Nik Bonitto’s figurative “arrival” in 2020 meant more sacks as well.

The trick? Mostly, Grinch stopped bulking up his defensive linemen but instead had them all slim down and employed a more aggressive, gap-taking philosophy up front. The risk to taking gaps with your defensive linemen is getting caught and screened, then badly punished, to which Grinch’s response is something along the lines of “then don’t get caught.”

Grinch really came on the scene as a defensive coach at Washington State in 2017 playing the 6-2, 252 pound Hercules Mata’afa as a defensive tackle (the position played at OU by Redmond and Thomas). Hercules compiled 22.5 TFL and 10.5 sacks in this role, the Cougars played great defense, and Grinch was snatched up by Ohio State who was anticipating losing Greg Schiano.

Speed D in 2021

The primary reason Oklahoma won the Big 12 title in 2020 was the performance of their D-line down the stretch after adding Ronnie Perkins into the fold. Perkins’ arrival allowed them to slide Isaiah Thomas to full-time defensive tackle and gave them A+ athleticism and disruption at four positions up front, when David Ugwoegbu would spell White at middle linebacker it’d be five positions. Perkins is gone now, off to the NFL, but Jalen Redmond returns after injuries which sapped the potential of his 2020 and led him to opt out.

The upshot here is Oklahoma starting a five-man defensive front in their pseudo-46 style defense which includes dangerous athletes opponents will need to track at every position. At 6-3, 230 and 6-4, 250, Bonitto and Ugwoegbu are basically hybrid 3-4 outside linebackers who can both rush the edge, stunt and blitz inside, or drop into coverage. At 6-5, 270 and 6-3, 280, Thomas and Redmond are both hybrid 4-3 end/tackle players that can take gaps inside one snap or rush the edge the next. Then there’s 6-3, 300 pound Perrion Winfrey inside who’s essentially playing as a spun down 3-technique, alternating between shooting the A-gap or the B-gap.

Grinch’s brilliance is in the overwhelming nature of it all. Many of these guys are well regarded NFL prospects but it’s hard to divorce the individual ability of any of them from the fact opponents have to be prepared to deal with ALL of them on EVERY snap.

The Sooners have benefitted each of the last two seasons by a degradation across the league in offensive play. In 2019 the league was retooling from losing Will Grier and Dana Holgorsen and Oklahoma State was starting over at quarterback with Spencer Sanders after losing CornDog. In 2020 the pandemic had a clear impact on most teams’ ability to hit their normal marks of timing and cohesion in the passing game or offensive line.

The overall offensive coaching around the league has also declined of late, which has to be noted when considering the rise of any defense around the league including Grinch’s at Oklahoma.

-Matt Rhule and Dave Aranda have transitioned Baylor from being an offensive juggernaut to trying to win with defense.

-Neal Brown has followed Dana Holgorsen in looking to win with some defense while trying to find a quarterback isolated from the state of Texas. Holgorsen did the same and even had some of his best seasons in Morgantown making the best of Skyler Howard at quarterback.

-Matt Wells replaced Kliff Kingsbury, the blessed, at Texas Tech and just fired his uber-competent OC David Yost in exchange for Sonny Cumbie after TCU fired him.

-Iowa State doesn’t always have the same skill talent as everyone else but they do have high level offensive coaching. In 2020 they were integrating new wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson amidst the pandemic and now return him along with pump fake Purdy, the entire offensive line, and tight end Charlie Kolar.

-Kansas State is in a similar boat and in 2020 was retooling virtually the entire offensive line amidst the pandemic and quickly lost senior quarterback Skylar Thompson. They beat the Sooners before that happened and return Thompson in 2021.

-Oklahoma State has frankly been floundering on offense the last few years for a variety of reasons. Spencer Sanders’ youth and lack of pass game development is one component, the brutal hits they took on offensive line last year are another.

The biggest takeaway is mostly that Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Texas Tech used to present four games on the schedule every year in which you had to be ready to get caught in a shootout and this simply has not been the case for the last couple of years.

However all of this doesn’t diminish the danger of the Sooner speed D so much as emphasize why it’s likely to be so important again in 2021 as they hit their stride with scheme and personnel.

Riley’s all-in move for 2021

The Sooners obviously left some scholarship spots open for the transfer portal this offseason and used three of them (so far) to pillage high level talents from Tennessee. They’ll be entering 2021 with a returning starter at quarterback, the most talented offensive tackle tandem in the league, and most of their promising young receivers of the last two classes now coming into their own as more experienced veterans.

Then there’s the defense, where they arguably return 11 starters depending on how you want to look at it.

The Big 12 figures to be VERY competitive in 2021 but there isn’t another obvious heavyweight on Oklahoma’s level. Iowa State, K-State, and TCU are bringing a lot of experience and firepower but not the same kind of talent. Texas under Steve Sarkisian will be immediately talented and perhaps more competently deployed but also young. Some of the major figures for their 2021 effort figure to be redshirt freshman left tackle Andrej Karic, redshirt freshman receiver Troy Omeire, sophomore running back Bijan Robinson, redshirt freshman center Jake Majors, and first-year starting quarterback Casey Thompson (or Hudson Card).

Oklahoma’s play will likely be to out-talent everyone along the lines of scrimmage and if Rattler can start to play within the system more they’ll be able to deal blowout Ls to even the better teams around the league.

But the Big 12 is like an immune system, regularly working out defensive approaches and figuring out how to drive them out of an offensive league. There’s two strategic approaches that center around the same principle.

Oklahoma wants the game to be about opponents’ trying to grind out consistent gains in the box against a defensive front with multiple athletes who can turn any play into a loss. The smart strategy isn’t to take them on in the box, even if you have a big and sufficiently experienced offensive line to match up without getting ruined every snap by penetration the odds of you winning often enough for it to be worth it aren’t great.

Perhaps you pick up a few nice gains where the defensive line is sealed, the negative plays are going to put you back behind the chains and then you’re dealing with the pass-rush without the ability to create run/pass conflict.

You need to move the game to the perimeter and there’s two ways to do it, both of which have been explored by Iowa State. One way is to pack the field with tight ends so you can run the ball in the D-gaps and alleys and perhaps create more double teams on the defensive linemen. It’s not yet clear if the Sooners will start Brendan Radley-Hiles at nickel again in 2021 (probably yes) but their defensive backs can be easier to beat for gains in the run game than the interior defense.

The other way is by spreading the Sooners out more. Turn Bonitto and Ugwoegbu or White into space-backers worrying about underneath option routes rather than when and where to crash in the pass-rush or on run defense. The Wildcats went option one in 2019 and found success but used option two more in 2020 with Deuce Vaughn and in a few plays erased a game’s worth of Oklahoma domination.

In 2021 the Sooners will be as experienced as they’ve been in the defensive backfield with some up and comer youngsters like Woodi Washington and Justin Harrington rising up as well. The aggressiveness and lethality of their nickel front can still be used against them though if an opposing offense can flip the script and put them on their heels with a wide open spread passing attack. This battle will probably be the one to watch for the Big 12 in 2021.
 

sherf1

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Didn't watch every OU game, but just annecdotally I remember them generating a ton of free rushers while bringing 4 or 5 guys because teams just couldn't handle the games/stunts and the ferocity those guys played with.

Will be interesting to see if that keeps happening with a better offseason situation and general increase in offensive competence in 2021.
 

mattwson

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I think the best thing for Redmond is to slim down and slide out to Perkins position. He's obviously very strong so he held up pretty well at DT with plus athleticism but I think the best option is to let him play at his lighter weight and play on the edge. I'd also like to see Jaden Davis play a slot corner to combat the option routes they might face but to this point Grinch hasn't really used a slot corner.
 

stilesbbq

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Do you think any UT defenders will slim down this offseason to play faster? It doesnt seem like PK emphasizes speed D the way Grinch does but Sark really wants the guys to be super explosive

Plus DL like Coburn could afford to be a step or two quicker
 

Ian Boyd

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I think the best thing for Redmond is to slim down and slide out to Perkins position. He's obviously very strong so he held up pretty well at DT with plus athleticism but I think the best option is to let him play at his lighter weight and play on the edge. I'd also like to see Jaden Davis play a slot corner to combat the option routes they might face but to this point Grinch hasn't really used a slot corner.
Brendan Radley-Hiles is a slot corner.
Do you think any UT defenders will slim down this offseason to play faster? It doesnt seem like PK emphasizes speed D the way Grinch does but Sark really wants the guys to be super explosive

Plus DL like Coburn could afford to be a step or two quicker
I’m sure some. Probably more because of the change in S&C rather than changing requirements in the defense.
 

hookem1993

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My eye says their defense is improving and they’re now gettin the recruits they want. The data in the table, however, shows the common 1st year new coordinator bump followed by regression to the mean in 2020 (e.g Diaz, Orlando). I unfortunately don’t believe the data, especially after watching their dismantling of Florida’s oline (though it was 1st time they’ve seen that defense).

at the end of the day ousucks
 
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Ian Boyd

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My eye says their defense is improving and they’re now gettin the recruits they want. The data in the table, however, shows the common 1st year new coordinator bump followed by regression to the mean in 2020 (e.g Diaz, Orlando). I unfortunately don’t believe the data, especially after watching their dismantling of Florida’s oline (though it was 1st time they’ve seen that defense).

at the end of the day ousucks
Regression to the mean? Where is that shown?
 

dos bobby

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Do you think any UT defenders will slim down this offseason to play faster? It doesnt seem like PK emphasizes speed D the way Grinch does but Sark really wants the guys to be super explosive

Plus DL like Coburn could afford to be a step or two quicker
I just mentioned this in another thread, but I see Torre Becton's goal that features repetition and explosion over bulk/static lifts as being just what your asking. By what I'm reading he is emphasizing rep numbers over heavy lifting, and with an emphasis on explosion.

I think we will see more than just a few bodies reshaped if this is, indeed, Becton's approach to the S/C program. I'm really excited for Whittington, and for a few of the big boy's who appeared to carry too much bulk to max their potential.

Hey, cheers @stilesbbq, have yourself a great weekend! And thanx for a great read @Ian Boyd, top shelf as usual.
 

longhorn clayton

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I just mentioned this in another thread, but I see Torre Becton's goal that features repetition and explosion over bulk/static lifts as being just what your asking. By what I'm reading he is emphasizing rep numbers over heavy lifting, and with an emphasis on explosion.

I think we will see more than just a few bodies reshaped if this is, indeed, Becton's approach to the S/C program. I'm really excited for Whittington, and for a few of the big boy's who appeared to carry too much bulk to max their potential.

Hey, cheers @stilesbbq, have yourself a great weekend! And thanx for a great read @Ian Boyd, top shelf as usual.
Big time. Whitt seems too bulked and like he’s winded up too tight. Better off throwing some bulk off and gaining flexibility and explosiveness

Coburn and Sweat are combined 700 pounds. That’s literally insane. I think Coburn especially with his elite first step and quickness would be much better if he could get down to 310-320. Sweat idk. Maybe he could be the “Vita Vea” type. But I really hope Coburn slims down
 

Ian Boyd

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Just looking at the final row Total. Now that I think of it 2020 had fewer games so accounting for that those totals probably would have remained flat in 2020.


Year. Total TFL & Sacks
2018 70.5
2019. 85
2020 77
Yeah 3 fewer games plus Perkins missed the first four or five.
 

dos bobby

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Big time. Whitt seems too bulked and like he’s winded up too tight. Better off throwing some bulk off and gaining flexibility and explosiveness

Coburn and Sweat are combined 700 pounds. That’s literally insane. I think Coburn especially with his elite first step and quickness would be much better if he could get down to 310-320. Sweat idk. Maybe he could be the “Vita Vea” type. But I really hope Coburn slims down
100% in agreement.
 
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longhorn clayton

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100% in agreement.
Always frustrated me how big Coburn was. The kid who was named "snacks" and kept snacks in his pockets during his recruiting visit to campus needs to be carefully looked after to ensure he doesn't blow up. And he's still a plus player at 350, but he'd have a better motor and be a better player if he sheds that weight and be that DT/NT that can push the pocket from the interior.

Am more ok with Sweat playing heavy. Want him to be a massive human gap plugging machine that's impossible to get ground on in the run game that comes in for Coburn when he needs a breather, but maybe other people view him differently
 

funky123

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Big time. Whitt seems too bulked and like he’s winded up too tight. Better off throwing some bulk off and gaining flexibility and explosiveness

Coburn and Sweat are combined 700 pounds. That’s literally insane. I think Coburn especially with his elite first step and quickness would be much better if he could get down to 310-320. Sweat idk. Maybe he could be the “Vita Vea” type. But I really hope Coburn slims down
Yeah it doesn’t look like coburn carries the weight was well as sweat. I think Sweat is 1/2 inches taller and longer so he can probably carry more total weight but neither of them should be more than 330 IMO. I’m a cowboys fan so I’ve watched Antwan Woods the past few years and I think he’s the only NG I’ve seen that can play that big with a motor