Why there’s hope for Oklahoma’s defense in 2018

No one is expecting this defense to be dominant, but it might just be good enough.

With the Oklahoma Sooners’ 2018 season getting underway in one week, important questions have yet to be answered. How the offense will look with Kyler Murray under center (so to speak) is one of the big ones, but perhaps the greatest unknown is how this year’s defense will compare to last season’s mostly-abysmal campaign.

We all have our doubts about a certain defensive coordinator, but I believe Oklahoma’s defense could — and should — show improvement in 2018.

Before I explore the main reasons why I am expectant of a better defense, I want to make note of defensive efficiency and other metrics included in defensive S&P+. As far as defensive metrics are concerned, yards and points per game only tell a fraction of the story. With different offensive and defensive styles throughout college football, it’s almost always a bit of an apples-and-oranges debate when comparing stats of any two given teams. Over the years, the most efficient metric I’ve observed that best contextualizes and grades how well or poor a defense performs is defensive S&P+.

By any measurement, Oklahoma’s defense was, for the most part, inept in 2017. Sure, it can always be worse, but in order for Oklahoma’s defensive ratings to actually be worse, an awful lot would have to happen. Call me a law-of-averages pumper, but I think the odds are heavily in favor of a more statistically-efficient defense.

However, I’m banking on more than just the law of averages. There re multiple reasons for sincere optimism on the defensive side in 2018. This group is still probably a year or two away from being where it truly needs to be from a talent standpoint, but there might just be enough talent and quality depth at this current moment to get the job done (to some extent). Let’s dig in:

The 4-2-5 Defense

In the Big 12, it’s not unheard of for a defense to face 75+ snaps in a game, and it’s certainly not uncommon for over half of those snaps to be passing plays. Because the league is so heavily skewed towards aerial assaults, defensive schemes need to adjust as a counter.

Gary Patterson, one of the greatest defensive minds in the game today, manages to field a quality defensive unit on a fairly frequent basis. TCU hasn’t historically recruited the same caliber of athletes across the board as Oklahoma has, so it’s logical to point to scheme. Surprise, surprise — the Horned Frogs run a ton a 4-2-5 alignments, and they work.

The 4-2-5 is a nickel package that allows a defense to substitute a linebacker for a defensive back. This in effect would tighten passing windows for quarterbacks simply because there are fewer open spaces to work with. The tricky part to fielding a successful 4-2-5 is having a player with the unique skill-set required to play that fifth DB.

That’s where true freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles comes in.

When talking about Oklahoma’s defense being better, he could very well be a reason all by himself. “Bookie” is slated to be Oklahoma’s starter at the nickel spot. Judging from his high school film as well as spring and fall practice updates, he covers well in space, has excellent ball skills, is an asset in defending the run, and perhaps most importantly, he shows elite instincts. He still has to put it all together on the field when it counts, but I’m certainly not betting against him.

Cornerback Depth/Experience

Last season, Jordan Parker was coming off a strong freshman campaign only to be sidelined for the year in the opener, and veteran Jordan Thomas continued a slide that began in 2016. Then when Parnell Motley momentarily struggled, true freshmen Tre Norwood and Tre Brown were pressed into emergency duty simply because they were the most viable options available. The unit is better for it, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

Oklahoma’s cornerback depth and experience is night and day different from where it was at the end of last season. Parker can theoretically switch back if needed (I highly doubt it), and after a being thrust into the fire, Brown and Norwood now have a solid year in the program under their belts. The veteran of the group is Motley, who figures to lead both with his voice and by example moving forward.

Amani Bledsoe and Neville Gallimore anchoring the DL

One of the biggest differences between Oklahoma and some of the other College Football Playoff usual suspects is the level of defensive line play. In the past, when the Sooners fielded nationally great defenses, they always touted a strong D-line.

This season, two defensive linemen that could have the greatest impacts are Amani Bledsoe and Neville Gallimore. Bledsoe’s play strengthened as the season wore on last season, but he wasn’t available until Week 6. He’ll be around for the Sooners going into this season, and if he picks up where he left off, then sustains it for an entire season, look out.

Then there’s Gallimore, aka “Big Canada”. His nickname needs no explanation, and it’s completely fitting. Now, if coach quotes and practice rumblings are to be taken without a grain of salt, the redshirt junior nose guard and former blue-chip recruit — now at nose tackle — has had his best offseason since he’s been in the program. At 6’2” and 330 pounds, and with the agility of much smaller men, he has the physical tools to swallow up running backs, eat up double teams and hopefully help this unit get a nice mush up front. If he truly has made strides and is able to consistently make an impact, it will allow Oklahoma’s defense to feast. It’s now up to him to prove he can truly elevate his play to the next level. The loss of Du’Vonta Lampkin still stings, but OU might not miss a beat if the Canadian can stay healthy and live up to his potential.

Another point I want to mention about the defensive line is the overall upgrade in talent and depth. If Oklahoma wants better defense on a consistent basis, the overall depth and talent level has to increase through recruiting. Lincoln Riley said as much at Big 12 Media Days, and quite frankly he’s right. Fortunately, with young talents like Ronnie Perkins, Ron Tatum and Michael Thompson (who is out for the year with a torn ACL), the future looks mighty bright.

Behind Gallimore, Bledsoe and Kenneth Mann, OU has some serviceable reserves up front, including Marquise Overton, Dillon Faamatau, Tyreece Lott,

Caleb Kelly’s switch from SAM to WILL

Coming from the high school ranks as a five-star prospect, a lot has been expected from linebacker Caleb Kelly, who up to this point has been somewhat inconsistent due to a few factors. Reportedly, Kelly played through an injury for most of last season, and to be honest it often appeared to be the case. Now he’s fully healthy, and what’s more, he’s playing in a different and more suitable role.

Switching over from SAM to WILL linebacker, Kelly will be able to use the full range of his natural ability that made him a five-star recruit. At the SAM, Kelly was expected cover a lot of turf, and he often seemed out of place. I expect to see a more aggressive Kelly this season, and I also expect that to result in more drive-altering plays. Furthermore, an improved frame should make a difference.

Outside Criticism

This reason might seem trivial or simply like wishful thinking, but never underestimate the power of doubt. Oklahoma has historically exceeded expectations when expectations were low. From a national/outside perspective, expectations for the defense couldn’t be any lower.

Make no mistake, the team hears and sees these “pretenders” and “overrated” comments just like you and I do, and it absolutely fuels them. With how the 2017 season ended, and with what the berating narrative has been ever since, my expectations are that this defense will use that doubt as blatant disrespect, and their performance will reflect as much.

Kenneth Murray

With all the aforementioned reasons why Oklahoma’s defense should be improved in mind, MIKE linebacker Kenneth Murray is one of the primary reasons why I’m optimistic about seeing improvements across the D. As the quarterback of the defense, Murray’s influence on that side of the ball is boundless. After starting all 14 games as a true freshman in 2017, the time for growing pains is over. Now it’s time for him to lead the way.

Murray hasn’t been shy when it comes to assessing his play. In fact, he’s a film-room junkie of the highest order. After hearing from him directly at Big 12 Media Days in July, I’m convinced there isn’t anybody in the state of Oklahoma who wants this defense to be great more than he does. Even for how young he is, I can see he has natural leadership qualities and an insatiable hunger to grow. With K-9 leading the charge, I’m optimistic about the Sooners’ defensive outlook moving forward.

Justification for pessimism

For the sake of fairness, I’m going to highlight a few things that happen to concern me (and pretty much everyone) entering the 2018 season:

  • The departure of Ogbonnia OkoronkwoReplacing Ogbo’s ability to disrupt is a tall task. Addison Gumbs has the potential to be a lethal threat on the edge, but expecting him to immediately fill that playmaking void probably isn’t realistic. Mark Jackson is the other primary contender to start at the JACK, and he did fine when called up in 2017.
  • Uncertainty at safety – Gone are Steven Parker and Will Johnson — a pair of players who seemed to have been in the program forever. Were either of them perfect? Far from it, but Parker was a solid safety who was good for a big play every now and again, and Johnson had a decent senior campaign. With Chanse Sylvie out for the season, Kahlil Haughton and Robert Barnes are the only available players with collegiate safety experience. However, Justin Broiles and Jordan Parker have moved from corner and are there to lend a hand, and Bookie is also an option. Will Haughton finally break out as a senior? Will the highly-touted Barnes make the big jump? Will Broiles and Parker be ready to contribute consistently? Finally, could freshmen Delarrin Turner-Yell or Patrick Fields find a way to crack the rotation?
  • Mike Stoops – We can’t blame it all on Mike, but some of the patterns we’ve seen are obviously concerning. Fortunately, I think a lot of the issues can be alleviated if he begins to have genuine confidence in his guys as the talent level continues to rise. Can we trust him to push the right buttons? Honestly, not really, but some of the issues could take care of themselves (to an extent, at least) if the right people step up.

The bottom line

Can we expect this defense to be a dominant unit? Probably not yet, but I think think it can be good enough. This team was 101st in defensive S&P+ in 2017, but imagine how much easier life would’ve been if the D had even performed in the 40-60 range. Yes, we’d still have our gripes, but perhaps we wouldn’t be pulling our hair so frequently. Do I think OU can finish in the top 15 in this metric? I highly doubt it, but I think this defense can be good enough to not cost the Sooners any games — provided the offense performs close to level we think it can.

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