2019-05-22 sp-emigcolumn OUDBs

Oklahoma cornerback Tre Norwood (left), intercepting a pass during the Sooners’ 39-27 win over Texas in the Big 12 title game, was part of a defense that shut out the Longhorns in the fourth quarter. IAN MAULE/Tulsa World file

If Alex Grinch is to steady Oklahoma’s scattered defense, he must fortify his front. Resistance starts there, coaches have told us since the helmets were leather.

Brent Venables put it this way once when he was OU defensive coordinator: “If you want to have any chance at playing good defense, it starts up front. Without it, you have nothing.”

OK, got it. The Sooners need linemen like Neville Gallimore, Kenneth Mann and Ronnie Perkins to be stronger and steadier if they want to pull out of their defensive nosedive. Understood.

And yet 102 days from OU’s season opener against Houston, defensive backs like Tre Brown, Parnell Motley and Brendan Radley-Hiles appear just as prominently. It is obvious they, too, must be stronger and steadier. They must be more disciplined and more dynamic.

They can’t get caught 5 yards behind streak-running receivers. They can’t contest 50-50 fade passes a fraction too late. They must turn their heads and make plays on those balls, not clutch and grab at receivers out of panicked desperation.

It’s a lot to ask of defensive backs in a Big 12 Conference whose quarterbacks throw 10 passes in the first quarter, then go to the sideline and ask their coaches: “OK to cut it loose now?”

It must be asked, though. It must be expected, same as it must be expected that these defensive backs shoot toward the line of scrimmage and tackle slot receivers since quick passes to those receivers help constitute an offense’s run package.

Run support in the leatherheads’ era, and even part of Venables’ at OU, meant cornerbacks and safeties defending toss-sweeping tailbacks on the edge. Not so much anymore, and certainly not in the Big 12.

So there was a real significance to OU’s corners and safeties before coach Lincoln Riley chose Grinch to rebuild his defense. There was a glaring need for improvement.

Now view these defensive backs through Grinch’s prism.

Here is a coordinator who made his rising-star reputation by having his players take the ball. It happened repeatedly for Grinch’s Washington State defenses from 2015-17. Who took the ball most often? Defensive backs.

Cornerback Marcellus Pippins had six takeaways in 2015 and safety Shalom Luani had four interceptions. Luani had four more picks in 2016, and safety Robert Taylor scooped up three fumbles. Taylor and safety Jalen Thompson combined for seven interceptions and six fumble recoveries in 2017.

Did WSU linemen and linebackers under Grinch create turnovers? Sure. Cougars defensive backs, though, thrived off them.

It makes sense. Defensive backs are the ones operating in space. That’s where passes are in the air. That’s where havoc can ensue, whether in the form of an interception, a deflection or a ball-jarring collision.

A corner or safety doesn’t have to be violent, even. He can be alert and poke possession from an unsuspecting ball-carrier. He typically has the speed to pursue a play and make it, even if it’s to atone for the play he didn’t make on the completion.

There are so many opportunities for defensive backs in today’s game, particularly today’s Big 12 game. Mix in a coordinator who preaches the value of turnovers, whose scheme is nicknamed “Speed D,” and it’s tempting to think those opportunities can multiply at OU.

A guy like Brown, whose technique is actually pretty good and whose physical gifts are obvious?

“He can fly, you know,” new secondary coach Roy Manning said this spring. “He’s one of the fastest guys, hands down, on the team.”

It’s tempting to think Brown can produce like one of Grinch’s Washington State defensive backs. It’s tempting to think Motley, Radley-Hiles and other OU DBs can fall in line.

Nobody is suggesting a revolution is here. Clemson and Alabama rule college football because their defensive linemen, not their defensive backs, look and play different than everybody else’s. Ten defensive linemen, not 10 defensive backs, went in the first 19 NFL draft picks last month.

Defenses are still built front to back. It’s just that some warrant more attention in the back, especially with a coordinator like Grinch in a conference like the Big 12.

We’ll see about OU’s back end in 102 days.

Guerin Emig

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guerin.emig@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @GuerinEmig

 

 

Sports Columnist

Proud father of Gretchen and Holden. Devoted husband to Christy, who has been my best friend since biology class at Booker T. Washington. I covered the Oklahoma Sooners for 15 years. That was both challenging and rewarding. Now I get to write columns.