The State of Oklahoma: High Expectations for OU's Defensive Line

As noted before, when Bradford, Gresham, Murray, and Williams skipped out on the NFL draft to return to Norman, Oklahoma's preseason status immediately jumped back up to the elite level.  Their return has created expectations that they will at least partially emulate the success of last year's record-breaking offense, and that alone is obviously a big reason why Oklahoma is once again considered a national title contender.

Nonetheless, the offense is actually expected to take a slight step back from last season.  While Gresham, Bradford, and Williams are all arguably first round talents, the losses at the OU offensive line, as well as the loss of some receivers, may keep this offense from being as dangerous as it was last year.  Whether or not this will turn out to be true is anyone's guess, but that is the expectation of the vast majority of media pundits.  Why is Oklahoma still ranked #2 or #3 in virtually everyone's preseason ballot?  Don't laugh:  It's the defense, which is expected to be much improved from last season.

We at Texas love taking potshots at Brent Venables and his overrated-ness, and we are especially thankful he thought it was a grand idea to cover Jordan Shipley with a linebacker last October.  Thanks for that, Brent.  However, no matter how overrated we think he is, he returns the majority of his defense, and the talent and experience alone can make him look quite good.  Truth be told, last year's OU defense was not elite, but it was second in the Big 12 to Texas and certainly much better than their bare NCAA rankings might suggest.  Another year of experience for these players can help OU win yet another Big 12 championship, and nowhere is this more true than at defensive line, where Oklahoma seems absolutely stacked.

Want to stop a pass-happy offense?  Kill the QB.

Longhorn fans know full well how a great defensive line can change everything; we had one of the best ones, if not the best one, in the country last year, and it helped shield our young secondary and mess up many a pass-happy Big 12 offense, including Oklahoma's.  While the likes of Harrell and Daniel have left the conference, the Big 12 will still sport the best collection of QB's in the nation (and by a large margin).  The best remedy, obviously, is to smack the QB around or otherwise get in his grill before he gets comfortable, and it was something Texas was very good at.  They weren't the only ones.

Oklahoma had a solid D-line last season as well and were actually pretty good at sacking the quarterback, second only to Texas in the Big 12.  They ranked #3 in the country last season with 42, averaging out to three per game.  They weren't too shabby in the run game either; while we should be very cautious of reading too much into bare NCAA rankings, Oklahoma ranked #20 in the country in rushing defense and gave up a respectable 3.47 yards per carry.  Granted, things like sacks and the lack of elite rushing offenses in the Big 12 inflated (or deflated?) these numbers, as they did for Texas, but if anything, it shows OU was at least solid in this department, even if they were not elite.  OU was also #3 in the country in tackles for loss, and while many were notched by their linebackers, their D-line was very active in that department as well and enabled the LBs to make plays in the first place.  OU's defense as a whole wasn't stellar last season, but the main problems were mostly with their back seven, not their front four.

As discussed last week, while last year's Sooner O-line was hyped to be the best unit in the country, this year's O-line is considered a potential weakness.  This time around, it is the D-line getting the hype, and this unit is the reason why people are high on the Oklahoma defense.  Compared to the O-line losing four starters, the D-line lost zero, and they have some decent depth to go with that.  

OU Defensive Line Starters

DT - Gerald McCoy, Jr.:  6'4, 297 lbs.  Backup:  Cordero Moore, Sr.

McCoy is yet another Sooner who turned down the draft to return to college football (as a redshirt, he was eligible to leave).  Unlike what many say about Bradford, who might have been the #1 pick if he left, this might have been a financially smart move for McCoy.  McCoy could have gone in Day 1 if he left early, but his stock is expected to rocket up this season, and he is considered one of the best prospects in the draft.  Some sites apparently are bold enough to predict that he'll be the #1 pick, although that obviously depends heavily on who actually has that choice.  Even a Nebraska site admits that McCoy may be on par with the Husker's Ndamukong Suh as the best tackle in not only the Big 12 but arguably in all of college football.  He was first team All-Big 12 and he was also the Defensive Freshman Player of the Year in the conference in 2007.  There is good reason why he is on several preseason lists for defensive awards.

McCoy is obviously a big guy and he is very athletic for his size.  Last season, he had 11 TFL and 6.5 sacks, good for third and second on his team, respectively.  His role is more in-line with what we expect from Lamarr Houston, as he not expected to gobble up blockers but to attack his gap and make plays, which is obvious with his 6.5 sacks.  He fits the mold of a 3-technique tackle well, which will be his most likely position in the NFL.  Unlike Houston, however, he is credited with the ability to take on double teams as well and free up linebackers behind him.  In other words, if an offensive line is having trouble against OU, you can expect to hear McCoy's name often.  Let this be a note to Chris Hall and our guards.

He is backed up by senior Cordero Moore.  Moore has been a reserve man his whole college career and doesn't have too much playing experience, but he did show up on the stat sheet for a few of OU's games last season, most notably against Tech and TCU.  There's nothing grand about him, but he's big and he can take up space if McCoy ever needs a break.

DT - Adrian Taylor, Jr.: 6'4, 293 lbs.  Backup:  DeMarcus Granger, Sr.

A more natural 3-technique tackle, Adrian Taylor is arguably slightly undersized for a nose guard.  Nonetheless, he is one of the leaders of the defense and is expected to have a great year.  Taylor started all 14 games last season as well while Granger nursed some injuries, and he beat out Granger for the starting job in the offseason.  Taylor notched 4.5 sacks and 6.5 TFL last season.

Taylor is a good defensive leader and he has high expectations for his defense, as he discusses in this interview.  By the way, he disagrees with Brandon Spikes that Oklahoma is dirty, as do all the Oklahoma reporters.  They're just "playing hard."  On a side note, one bit of good news in this interview for Texas may be his brief discussion of former TE Brody Eldridge switching to the center position, whom he gamely says "works as hard as anyone on the team" but needs to put on weight to be effective.  We'll see how that goes.

Taylor is not as hyped as McCoy and he isn't the country's biggest space eater, but he is strong and he works every play.  He and McCoy are apparently great friends (and even roommates now!) who push each other and work well together.  While nothing quite like our super roommates, McCoy and Taylor are quite the tandem and are considered the best one in the country in many circles.

Backing him up is senior Demarcus Granger, who, as noted above, lost his starting job due to injury last season.  While an avid shopper, he is still an imposing guy, standing 6'2 and listed as 327 pounds, making him look more the size of a nose tackle than Taylor.  He didn't do much statistically last year and was largely slowed by injury, showing up in only 11 games, but Oklahoma expects him to provide excellent depth and regain the form he had in 2007 when he made the All-Big 12 second team.

DE:  Auston English, Sr:  6'3, 251 lbs.  Backup:  Frank Alexander, So.

English was another player who probably had a better 2007 season.  That season, he led the Big 12 with 9.5 sacks and was a first All-Big 12 selection, even though he missed the last three games of the regular season.  English did well enough his 2007 season to be on 2008 preseason watch lists for defensive awards, but with some injury problems (including an emergency appendectomy before the season started), he did not live up to expectations last season.  English missed three games last season as well, and he only recorded 4.5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss and therefore was only an All-Big Honorable Mention.  Similar for Granger, OU fans are hoping he regains his 2007 form to help this D-line dominate.

English is very athletic and has proven his ability to get to the QB when healthy.  As seems typical for Stoops and Oklahoma coaches, Stoops said English is as good as any DE OU has had in his tenure back in 2007.  We can perhaps ignore the hyperbole but there's no denying that this guy is capable.  He's no Brian Orakpo and he may not even be the pure athlete that a guy like Brian Robison was for us, but with the DT's this team has, it will be scary for opposing QB's having this guy coming off the edge.

Sophomore Frank Alexander will provide some depth, a former four star recruit according to Rivals.  Alexander recorded 3.5 sacks and 5 TFL last season in a backup role and as a replacement for injured starters, so he has some good game experience.  Alexander is a bit undersized, weighing about 229, but he reportedly runs a 4.7 forty and has good strength.  He was an AP All-Big 12 Honorable Mention.

DE:  Jeremy Beal, Jr.:  6'3, 261 lbs.  Backup:  David King, RS Fr.

With English slowed by injuries, Beal picked up the slack in terms of sack total.  Beal led the team in both sacks and TFL, with 8.5 and 15.5 respectively.  His season earned him a first team All-Big 12 selection as the strongside defensive end.  Not only that, Beal was sixth on the team in tackles, notching 65, and all that shows why he and English are on the Hendricks award preseason list, won last year by Brian Orakpo for being the nation's top defensive end.  Also, if you care what Tim Griffin thinks, Griffin has Beal listed as the Big 12's 23rd best player (by the way, Gerald McCoy was 7th on his list, in case you're wondering).

Beal reportedly runs a 4.7 forty as well and he has matured as a pass rusher.  He was a linebacker in high school but was moved to DE, and he initially struggled.  However, he has now become a sort of pass rushing specialist and he's capable of playing as a pass rushing LB similar to Sergio Kindle.  Needless to say, having two players on the Hendricks award list on the same line doesn't spell good things for opposing quarterbacks.

Behind Beal will be redshirt freshman David King.  He was the 11th best DE of his class according to Scout.com and #16 strongside DE according to Rivals, receiving four stars.  He possess good size already, standing 6'4 and weighing 240 pounds, and he reportedly uses his arms to shed blocks fairly well.

Other notables

Our favorite player, Jamarkus McFarland, is apparently impressing people.  In Taylor's interview above, Taylor says good things about McFarland, and as well all know, he was a four star recruit and the highest rated DT in Texas.  He may receive a redshirt but OU may look to get him some playing time and add to their already impressive depth.  The jury is still out on whether his mama prefers him to redshirt or not and if she disapproves of unwholesome Oklahoma parties as well.  She certainly doesn't disapprove of lying.

Be Very Concerned, Big 12 Quarterbacks

Oklahoma seems justified into believing they have the best defensive tackle rotation in the country.  McCoy looks to be a star and they have two quality players playing next to him in Taylor and Granger.  Cordero Moore is a solid backup and Jamarkus McFarland can give them some playing time if he is needed.  However, with the depth they have, he may not be, although with anticipated losses to the NFL next season, the coaches may want to work him in anyway.

The defensive ends aren't as scary but they do sport some serious talent.  Texas may outshine OU in terms of depth here but Oklahoma does return both of their starters, while Texas lost both to the NFL.  Again, this was a unit that was third in the nation in sacks and second in the Big 12, bested only by Texas, and with Texas sending three starters to the NFL, most people expect Oklahoma to claim the status as the top defensive line in the conference.  This was certainly a big reason why OU was so good in defending passing downs according to Bill C., except perhaps against Texas.  Make no mistake, this D-line is dangerous.

What does this mean for Texas?  Well, we have a bit of role reversal for this October.  Last year, we went up against an experienced O-line but our stacked D-line ultimately prevailed.  This season, OU wants to return the favor against our experienced O-line, and it's not going to be easy blocking all these guys.  Despite our offensive success in last year's game, OU did have some success pressuring Colt and they did hold down our run game for most of the game until fatigue set in and Ogbonnaya was able to bust them for a couple big runs.  Once again, the story of this game will be in the trenches, where our plethora of DE's will test OU's inexperienced line and Oklahoma's stacked D-line will throw everything at our experienced and solid but sometimes unimpressive O-line.  It will be both fun and nerve-wracking to watch.  I kind of have a feeling that BYU might get their tails kicked in Dallas because of this unit, despite the predictions of some bozos like Andre Ware.

So, Greg Davis?  Let's fix that run game ASAP.  Colt can handle pressure as well or better than anyone in college football, but he's still human, and no QB wants to be running around for his life because the D-line can just pin their ears back and go after him.  Because we faced all these guys last season, I'm confident that we can win, but it may pose the most significant challenge in the game.  I think our tackles can handle their ends, but the big concern is their DT's, who will test our new guard and guys like Tanner and Hall.  In my estimation, they deserve the hype.  We'll see you in October.

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