By John Shinn
Questions have been raised about Oklahoma’s secondary and linebackers. Their lack of experience leaves some wondering whether the defensive standards will dip in 2008.
But none of those questions pertain to the defensive line. OU knows what it has this season — quite possibly the best collection of down linemen it has put on the field in the Bob Stoops era.
“We feel like we have a chance to be as good as we have been up front since 2004, which was an awfully talented group with Dan Cody and Jonathan Jackson at end and then players inside like Lynn McGruder and Dusty Dvoracek. We think that our front four guys are very talented.”
However, the difference between this season and 2004, or any other year in the last decade, is the shear depth the Sooners have up front.
In the three-deep at defensive end and two-deep at defensive tackle, there are nine players who started games last season.
Defensive end Auston English leads the list. He led the Big 12 in sacks last year with 91⁄2 and was named the conference’s preseason defensive player of the year.
He has the ability to be the most disruptive player in the conference. All his sacks last season came in the first nine games. A broken leg caused him to miss three starts and he wasn’t full strength for either the Big 12 championship game or the Fiesta Bowl.
Accolades aside, he believes his motor is running at the same level it did early last year.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a snap and I’m real hungry and real thirsty to get back out there and do the whole thing all over again,” he said.
He’s not alone.
Joining English at the end spots are Alan Davis, Jeremy Beal, Frank Alexander and sixth-year senior John Williams.
Davis started four games last season and the senior has steadily moved up the depth chart throughout his career. Beal started two games last year and the former linebacker showed vast potential with five tackles for losses.
Alexander, who spent last year in redshirt, was a menace in the spring and has continued to be a disruptive force since preseason workouts began.
Williams is the wild card. He’s coming off an Achilles injury, which sidelined him for the entire Big 12 schedule and postseason. But the cagey veteran can still make plays.
The tackle position has the same depth and talent.
Gerald McCoy, DeMarcus Granger, Adrian Taylor and Cory Bennett all played last season, with McCoy and Granger enjoying breakout seasons.
“Everybody that is going to play this year has played in games, and in numerous games,” McCoy said. “So now it is just going to be about bringing it all together and play as a unit, stop the run and improve on our pass rush.”
McCoy was the conference’s freshman of the year and Granger was an all-conference selection. Taylor and Bennett combined for 23 tackles and 11⁄2 sacks and played meaningful downs in every game.
McCoy is the potential star of the group. He moves much faster than anyone weighing 295 pounds should.
“We think that Gerald McCoy has a chance to be really special and hopefully he can beat the one-on-one with consistency and draw the double team and really free up DeMarcus Granger, Adrian Taylor and Cory Bennett and all those guys. We like all those guys. They can play at a high level and they have proven so.”
The Sooners’ defensive line will be critical this season for several reasons, but the biggest is pressure.
The pressure it can put on opposing quarterbacks and running games will likely be unmatched in the conference, if not all of college football.
The pressure the front four can potentially take off a youth-laden back seven could be the biggest key to OU’s season.
“Any defensive coordinator prefers to have four guys that can get after the quarterback and can wreak havoc without having to do too much, and you can play coverage and that gives you a lot of flexibility and a lot of options to play base and get after people,” Venables said.