ARLINGTON — Armed with one of the most explosive and innovative offenses in the country, Oklahoma literally scored its way into the last two College Football Playoffs.
The Sooners’ defense has often looked like spectators going along for the ride.
That’s something the Sooners want to change this year as Alex Grinch takes over as defensive coordinator.
Grinch was Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator last year after a three-year stint at Washington State. Since his arrival in Norman in January, he’s let his defensive players know that sloppy play and lack of focus won’t cut it anymore.
“It comes down to us not making excuses,” said Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year. “Coach Grinch has the mentality that we’re going to try to make the offense play on our terms. Once you get 11 people doing that, we’re going to make strides and make a difference.”
When asked if Grinch has pointed out certain plays where the Sooners failed last year, Murray indicated that it was a smorgasbord. It wasn’t just a few busted plays that made them the 114th-ranked defense nationally and last in the Big 12.
While Oklahoma’s offense was leading the country with 570.3 yards and 48.4 yards per game, the defense was allowing 453.8 yards and 33.3 points per game.
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Oklahoma fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops following a 48-45 loss to Texas last year. Though the Sooners won their next seven games with Ruffin McNeill taking over as interim defensive coordinator, the defense still played poorly.
Oklahoma’s 2018 season ended with a 45-34 loss to Alabama in the CFP semifinals, a year after the 2017 season ended with a 54-48 double-overtime loss to Georgia in the semifinals.
“If we want to be honest, you see things that we did that weren’t great defense,” Murray said. “Those are things we have to eliminate and improve on if we want to be the defense we want to be. It all comes down to playing great fundamental football and playing with great effort.”
Though Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley expects defensive improvement, he realizes it’s a process. Oklahoma’s defense isn’t going to jump into the top 10 in the country overnight.
“You want it to happen overnight, but that’s impossible,” Riley said. “It involves everything those defensive coaches and players do, it involves how they play and how they work, how they interact with each other. It takes everything. If you’ve got any loose ends or cracks it will show up.”
Riley will be satisfied if he sees the defense improve progressively and eventually become a unit that can complement Oklahoma’s high-scoring offense.
“To change it takes a lot because you’ve got so many players at different points in their career,” Riley said. “You’ve got true freshmen who don’t know anything different. You’ve got fifth-year seniors who have had different coaches and all that. It’s different for different people, and the sooner you get everybody to buy in, this thing takes off.”
Murray isn’t putting everything on Riley and his defensive staff. He said it’s up to him and the other defensive leaders to get the rest of the players on board.
“We just have to get the mentality right,” Murray said. “We have to get everybody on the same page and go out there and do it. Getting everybody to buy in is the biggest thing. Not everybody’s a football fanatic like me. Not everybody just loves to watch tapes all day and loves football. Once you get everybody bought into the idea of what we’re trying to do as a defense, then you have something.”
Murray likes the tone Grinch has set because he wants all his players to come to every practice and game with an aggressive mindset.
“It’s great when you have a coach with a hunter’s mentality because that’s how it is on defense,” Murray said. “We’re going out there to hunt. When you have the head defensive coordinator enforcing that mentality, this is what it’s going to take. I’m excited for him and the whole new staff. I’m learning new things every day and picking their brains.”
Murray believes the Sooners have the talent they need with nine returning defensive starters from last season, including veteran linemen Neville Gallimore and Kenneth Mann.
“We have the talent, and coach Grinch has said that multiple times,” Murray said. “There’s no excuse for (Grinch) in the world that makes it OK for us not to be the Oklahoma defense that we know we all should be. He’s harping on us getting back to that standard, and we will get back to that standard.”
Though the Sooners have won the Big 12 the last two years with a porous defense, Riley dismissed the notion that a great offense is all it takes. He’s seen how defense matters, especially when the Sooners reached the College Football Playoff.
“It matters a great deal,” Riley said. “It’s a huge part of your football team. We’ve got to do that more consistently to make ourselves a better team and we feel like we’ve taken the steps to do that.”