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Sooners banking on new wave of defensive talent to make them a better all-around football team
Look back on the Rose Bowl and what do you remember?
Lincoln Riley's cool end-of-the-first-half trick play where CeeDee Lamb threw a touchdown pass to Baker Mayfield. Right?
Maybe Rodney Anderson carving up the Georgia defense for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Or Marquise Brown catching and running his way to 114 yards and another score.
You remember all of that offense. Makes sense. It has become Oklahoma's calling card. What can Riley think up next? What playmaker might he use this time?
But rewind just one more second to a defensive play from that game.
With seven minutes to go and the score tied 38-38, Georgia running back Sony Michel took a handoff wide left. He eluded defensive lineman Amani Bledsoe and then broke the tackle attempt of cornerback Tre Norwood.
Michel reached his 45-yard line, when Caleb Kelly measured him and drove his shoulder into the runner's midsection, dislodging the football. Steven Parker picked it up on one hop. He kept his balance along the OU sideline, cut by Georgia receiver Javon Wims inside the Bulldogs' 30 and sprinted for the end zone to give the Sooners a 45-38 lead.
It was the one moment in the game's second half that made you think OU would win, that convinced you the Sooners were headed for the national championship appearance. A defensive play created by a five-star linebacker and a four-star safety.
Kelly was part of a 2017 recruiting class that included quarterback Austin Kendall, running back Abdul Adams and receiver Mykel Jones. Parker came aboard in 2014 along with classmates Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Michiah Quick and Justice Hansen.
Both defenders were important pieces of their respective classes, but fans still gravitated to all of that offensive talent that came with them. That’s how it works every National Signing Day, particularly in this era of fast-break, last-team-with-the-ball-wins football.
Fans gravitated to Riley's new offensive toys over the two recent signing days — to Tanner Mordecai, a quarterback with the kind of spark Riley saw in Mayfield, and T.J. Pledger, a four-star running back from the talent mill known as IMG Academy.
Just know that the true worth in OU's Class of '18 will be more accurately measured on the defensive side of the ball.
That's what Riley, Mike Stoops and the Sooners need worse than those offensive toys right now. They need a defensive infusion. They need more of what Kelly and Parker provided in that striking fourth-quarter moment in Pasadena.
Observers see OU's defensive plunge the past few seasons and they see Stoops, along with his brother, Bob, before the retirement of last summer, tinkering with scheme to get it right again.
But it isn't scheme. Not really.
It goes back to something Mike Stoops said on the early Signing Day back in December…
"If you play a 4-3, you've got to have guys that make plays up front. In the 3-4, you've got to have guys make plays on the edges. It's pretty simplistic. You want to be in a four-man front, you need Gerald McCoy, you need Tommie Harris. You need guys that can disrupt games either on the edges, and they have to have some size and agility and speed to go with it.
"Those are important qualities," said Stoops. "Your ability to get off the football and penetrate the line of scrimmage and do all those things. You try to play to players' strengths. We've been trying, but you don’t want to just do something to do it."
The Sooners simply haven't had players the caliber of McCoy or Harris in the middle of their defensive line, which every coach will tell you is ground zero for formidable defense. They have had productive edge players — Ogbo Okoronkwo, Eric Striker and Charles Tapper, among others — but then they haven't had enough thumpers behind them.
OU needs more players that running backs and receivers feel. They need more of what Torrance Marshall, Roy Williams, Rocky Calmus, Lance Mitchell, Brandon Everage, Curtis Lofton and Quinton Carter once provided.
There was a presence about all of those guys, an attitude. More than that there was playmaking.
The kind of play Kelly and Parker made in the Rose Bowl? You used to see that a lot more often. The Sooners need you to see it more often again.
The hope is Brendan Radley-Hiles can provide it. Jalen Redmond can provide it.
DaShaun White, Ron Tatum, Ronnie Perkins, Michael Thompson, Starrland Baldwin, Nik Bonitto and Miguel Edwards can provde it.
They all have four or five stars next to their names as they report to OU to play defense. Now that must translate.
This new wave of talent isn't going to magically transform scoreboards. We’re too far down the road to put the game back in control of defenses. Even Alabama gives up 45 now and then.
The idea here is simple impact. It is to give Stoops and OU's defensive staffers more to work with as they tweak alignments that give them a better chance.
On paper, the Class of '18 has the potential to give the Sooners a much better chance. Let’s see what happens from here.
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