In hindsight, the early stretches of the 2018 season for the Owasso defense were the result of the perfect storm.
The Rams entered last fall woefully inexperienced with just four returning starters from their state championship team. Four of those Owasso graduates had moved on to play Division I football.
To make the situation even more challenging, those varsity newcomers were thrust onto the Friday night lights scene against arguably Owasso’s four toughest regular season opponents in its first four games.
“It’s kind of a double-edge sword,” Rams coach Bill Blankenship said about his team’s early-season gauntlet. “If you’re serious about trying to build for the playoff run, you want to be tested as much as you can. The danger is you might get broken.”
The defense may not have broken, but it was certainly fractured.
In the season opener against Bentonville West, the Rams surrendered 548 yards and 40 points. Not to mention, Owasso lost standout linebacker KeJuan Hay, one of its few experienced defenders, in the second half. Hay missed the next six games.
A week later, Fayetteville put up 597 yards and 45 points as it dealt the Rams their first loss in nearly a calendar year. Eventual state champion Broken Arrow magnified Owasso’s early-season struggles when it put up more than 400 rushing yards and 47 points on the Owasso Stadium scoreboard.
“I really learned how to play football again,” said junior middle linebacker Brendan Dye, who replaced Hay in the lineup. “It was a lot different from freshman to varsity (level). The first time I played against Broken Arrow, I didn’t do well.”
Dye’s teammates had similar self-assessments of their early moments on varsity a year ago.
“We were all new,” said fellow junior linebacker Emaud Triplett. “We were all young. None of us had played together.”
A week after the Broken Arrow game, the Ram defense began to put those on-the-job lessons into practice with an improved performance when they surrendered 21 points to Union. The Redskins were one of only three teams that scored more than 13 points against Owasso over the final nine games of the season.
Owasso begins a similar gauntlet Friday when it opens the 2019 campaign on the road against Bentonville West. Only this time, the Rams have the benefit of a more seasoned unit with eight returning starters.
The Rams kick off their season at 7 p.m. inside Wolverine Stadium.
“We were kind of circling the drain after (Union) last year,” Blankenship said. “Thankfully we were able to put it together and build some resiliency in our guys. I think we’re way better because of it.”
Owasso’s defense is buoyed by a veteran secondary that returns all five starters, including Kansas commit and cornerback Duece Mayberry and fellow three-year starter, safety Dawson Adams.
“We’re going to be smarter,” Mayberry said. “We’re going to be more familiar with each other.”
Along with added experience, Blankenship has mentioned multiple times during the off-season Ram fans will notice a physical difference in the defense after spending a full year with strength and conditioning coordinator Jordan Johnson.
“Last year was just us coming together,” said 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior defensive Haydon Grant, the Tulsa commit who many around the program feel could have a breakout 2019 season. “We were real young last year. By the end of the year, we matured and meshed and came together. I feel like we’re already there this year. So it’s just up from here.”
Owasso showed flashes of its growth last week in a 35-0 mini-game win over Edmond Santa Fe. The Ram defense not only pitched a shutout, but got interceptions from Adams and Dye, which was returned for a 17-yard score.
Despite his unit’s possible upside, Rams defensive coordinator Bobby Klinck reiterated he has to see their improvement in a regular season situation before he’ll believe the hype.
“You hope it would be a lot better (this season),” Klinck said. “But the thing is you’re dealing with 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids. So you never really know until you get into that first game…I’m just anxious to get that first game under our belt. Going out to Arkansas to see how they react to traveling a good distance to really high-quality opponent.”