NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — It is a small sample size, but the numbers say Oklahoma’s defense has improved this season.
The Sooners fielded one of the worst defenses in the nation last season. Just a good defense with Oklahoma’s historically good offense and Heisman winner Kyler Murray might have produced a national title.
This season, the offense is just as good, leading the nation with 676.7 yards per game. But now, with it comes an aggressive, ball-hawking defense led by new coordinator Alex Grinch that has done its part in the 3-0 start for the fifth-ranked Sooners.
Grinch talked in the offseason about instilling a new attitude in the defense. So far, so good for Oklahoma — the Sooners allowed 408 yards to Houston in the opener, then 339 yards against South Dakota and 311 yards against UCLA.
“I think it’s tangible,” Grinch said. “You can only do it on game day. You can talk about it. You can get a sense after a Tuesday in the spring kind of the progress. You can take practice seven in fall camp, just a random practice in fall camp — you can leave the facility at night and feel like you’re making progress, but is it going to show on game day?”
It has. Last season, Oklahoma ranked 114th out of 129 schools in total defense and 101st in scoring defense. This season, the Sooners rank 46th nationally out of 130 teams in scoring defense and 58th in total defense.
Grinch has put an emphasis on forcing turnovers, and Oklahoma is plus-1.0 per game in turnover margin, tied for 21st nationally heading into a bye week.
With the improvement has come a swagger that has been missing in recent years.
“Playing with confidence,” linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “And that just comes from coach Grinch and his staff, they pride themselves on keeping things simple, and I think that’s really the biggest thing. We’ve gotten out there and we’ve made a couple plays now. We’ve gotten a chance to go against a couple of different teams. Now we’re just creating confidence and we’re able to go out there and fly around and do what we do.”
Murray leads the way with 22 tackles. Defensive end Jalen Redmond leads the team with 2.0 sacks, 2.0 quarterback hurries and 4.5 tackles for loss. Defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles has an interception return for a touchdown and a fumble recovery. Defensive linemen Neville Gallimore and Ronnie Perkins have created havoc all season.
The Sooners also are building depth, a weakness last season. Murray, for example, is playing fewer snaps than he did last year. Riley said that’s a credit to recent recruiting success.
“That’s all part of starting to establish the culture that we want defensively,” Riley said. “That was part of the plan all along, is to play a lot of guys and to create competition and create depth and create development of other players.”
There’s still plenty of work to do — the Sooners rank 85th in pass efficiency defense and 85th in red zone defense. But Grinch said he sees the right mentality to get things turned around.
“I think we’re becoming a good to borderline great practice team. I say that and the minute I say that I cringe a little bit because I hate to oversell that, but that’s one step to this thing. It’s fun to go to practice with these guys.”