Referring to the months ahead of Oklahoma’s 2020 campaign as the “offseason” might not be so accurate.
“To use that term this year,” OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said, “you gotta stop yourself.”
Indeed, it was an abnormal break between OU’s Peach Bowl loss to LSU and its season opener against Missouri State — ultimately hindering the Sooners’, and everyone else’s, progress in developing younger players into reliable game-day options.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down OU’s spring practices, and its summer workouts didn’t start until July 1 — about a month later than usual — before starting preseason training camp four weeks later.
“Fall camp, that stretch of time, that's the time, especially when you don't have June with these guys,” Grinch said, “it’s a crash course for 'em.”
OU's fall camp became even more difficult to manage with the team's COVID outbreak in mid-August after coach Lincoln Riley sent players home to recharge with the Sooners’ 2020 schedule still unclear.
OU came out of that phase looking sharp against Missouri State on Sept. 12 — the Sooners prevailed 48-0 in their first shutout victory since a 55-0 win over Kansas State in 2015. But the Sooner defense hasn’t looked the same since, falling to Kansas State and Iowa State in consecutive weeks and nearly dropping a third straight to Texas. But to be fair, it hasn’t been all negative.
“There are stretches of time — long stretches of time — where we're almost guilty of being a pretty good defense,” said Grinch, who leads a unit that ranks No. 20 nationally in total defense (342.5 yards allowed per game).
“Screw around and do it much longer, they're actually gonna call us good.”
Add some more time to develop its freshmen and sophomores, OU might achieve that goal. And perhaps the Sooners would already be there (or much closer) in a normal year.
OU is currently in its second bye week, and while it feels better after ending its losing skid, there’s still plenty of strides to be made for a team that didn’t enjoy a proper offseason to grow.
It led to some shaky defensive efforts and two losses against offenses led by veteran quarterbacks like Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson and Iowa State’s Brock Purdy. Texas senior Sam Ehlinger nearly took advantage of a third OU meltdown late in last Saturday’s game, but the Sooners persevered.
Grinch isn’t sure if he’s handled his lineups well in those outings, trying to strike a balance between getting the talented freshmen he’s signed valuable experience, while also not putting them in a position to fail when OU’s expectation is to still compete for a Big 12 crown.
“I don't know that we did a great job of it, as I look at how we did things,” Grinch said. “Maybe in some respect, we gave them too many reps, where what needed to do to if they weren't gonna perform on that particular Saturday was maybe not give them too much. Now the flip side is then they're never gonna be ready. That's the unique of challenges that we find ourselves in, in 2020.”
It's obvious OU is beginning to trust more of its youth, especially in its secondary.
Redshirt freshman safety Woodi Washington had a season-high five solo tackles, as well as a pass breakup and a fourth-quarter interception, against Texas last week. Joshua Eaton, a true freshman cornerback, made an appearance against the Longhorns, which was his first since OU’s opener against Missouri State. And redshirt freshman Jeremiah Criddell, who backs up Brendan Radley-Hiles at nickelback, continues to see the field.
“I thought Woodi Washington came in and obviously had a big impact on the (Texas) game,” Riley said. “I thought Criddell and Josh Eaton, a couple of those guys came in and did some really good things. ... I think they earned the opportunity to move forward.
"I think it's what we've been seeing in practice. Those guys have been improving and needed this time. We've gotten to the point where we're ready to put some of those guys in the game. We have a couple others who are right there and ready to take some snaps too.”
The more players OU has at its disposal, the better for a Grinch-led defense that wants to rotate and keep players fresh throughout a 60-minute contest.
Both Grinch and Riley believe the defense is finding those pieces as they get deeper into the year. Tre Brown, a senior cornerback from Tulsa, has no doubts his younger teammates will get there after their performance against Texas.
“I'm proud of those guys,” Brown said. “This is one of the biggest games and they didn't flinch, not once. They all made their plays when their number was called and man, they just did an amazing job. You can see that OU's gonna be in good hands when I'm gone from here.”