NORMAN — This week in the Tulsa World, Guerin Emig provided for readers the definitive review of OU’s 1999 football team.
Bob Stoops’ first Sooners set the table for his 2000 national champions. As Guerin got fresh, fascinating anecdotes from those 1999 coaches and players, this series is the best thing I’ve read all summer. It’s as much about the strength of hope as it is about football.
The 1996-98 Sooners were 12-22. The Stoops hiring energized a fan base that was starving for hope, but no one could have reasonably expected such an entertaining and important season.
Fans of the 2019 Sooners are intensely curious about how the Jalen Hurts offense will look, but there are the usual expectations that OU will average 40-plus points and 530 yards per game — and win a fifth consecutive Big 12 championship.
When those same fans switch their focus to the defensive side of the program, they’re no different than the 1999 OU fans who desperately needed hope.
Fans, Lincoln Riley, Alex Grinch and Sooners defensive personnel would savor a big shot of hope if they are better than expected on opening night, when 23-point-favorite, fourth-ranked OU hosts Houston on Sunday, Sept. 1.
The desired routine is simple: Against Houston and while in Los Angeles to clash with UCLA, it’s obviously and critically important for the defense to show positive signs. To create hope and confidence early in the season, and then have it become something more special later in the season.
While it does qualify as improbable, it wouldn’t be the biggest upset in sports history if OU were a lot better than expected defensively. If it happens, Jalen Redmond probably will have played a significant role. LaRon Stokes, also.
Every defense emphasizes the important of creating turnovers, but to consistently cause ball-handling mistakes, there has to be consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback.
From down linemen last season, OU totaled only 11 sacks. Oklahoma State had 26 from linemen.
In the quest to generate pressure, Grinch benefits from the presence of two possibly impactful edge rushers. As a freshman last year, the 6-foot-3, 264-pound Redmond was sidelined because of blood clots in his lungs.
The 6-4, 267-pound Stokes was homeschooled as a high school athlete in Tulsa. After two seasons of junior-college competition at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Stokes received scholarship offers from OU, Oklahoma State and Oregon.
When Stokes signed with the Sooners in December, his NEO coach responded with the most positive scouting report of all time.
“He’s the whole package,” Zach Allen said. “He’s smart, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s long and he’s quick. He’s great at everything. ... With everything that I know about LaRon, I’m confident that he’ll be on the field as fast as possible.”
On Tuesday, Grinch made it a point to mention Stokes.
“He has been as consistent as any guy on that defense, literally from day one,” Grinch said. “He’s done a tremendous job from a mental standpoint. He plays hard. He plays physical.
“We’d take a LaRon Stokes every year, if you can find one. He’s been impressive.”
When Redmond was cleared to practice without limitations, sophomore end Ronnie Perkins describes Redmond in the same way that Allen described Stokes.
“He’s a game-changer,” Perkins said of Redmond, who at Midwest City was a highly rated recruit. “He’s fast. He’s light on his feet.
“It will be like a big holiday when he makes his first tackle and his first sack. All the guys on the team will be happy for him. His first day back, I felt like the whole D-line had a glow about us. Just watching him and having him back to join us.”
While that all seems promising, this is exactly the way you should talk about a teammate — with uplifting comments. Grinch and his players know the truth, though. They’re in a “prove it” position, and Houston provides an interesting moving target in the opener.
The subject of OU’s 2018 defensive nightmare has been chewed to pieces. No one wants a recitation of OU’s problems last year, but these numbers provide more than enough definition: The Sooners gave up 640 total yards in Bedlam, 348 rushing yards against Kansas and 704 total yards against West Virginia.
And in 14 games, the OU defense mustered only 11 takeaways.
Grinch met with reporters on Tuesday. Keep in mind, this is his first hot Oklahoma summer. His previous employers were the football programs at New Hampshire, Wyoming, Missouri, Washington State and Ohio State.
When he arrived for the Q&A, straight from the practice field, the 38-year-old Grinch seemed strong and unaffected by a 100-degree afternoon.
In most cases, when a coach feels grinding stress, it’s detectable. I didn’t detect any of that with Grinch, who has been candid about OU’s issues but on Tuesday, for the most part, seemed optimistic about all three levels of his defense.
If Grinch really senses that this defense has a chance to be measurably better, and if he really believes that Redmond and Stokes can take fresh playmaking ability to the field, then the fans’ hope process begins fairly immediately.