NORMAN — Oklahoma appeared to have a lot of holes at the end of the 2012 season. None were bigger than the defensive line. The group that exited after the AT&T Cotton Bowl was ineffective. What was left couldn’t get ahead of them on the depth chart.
Players could not hide from that perception. Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery was telling his guys what the outside world thought of them from the day he took the job in February.
“Everybody in the country thinks we stink. And, I tell them that every single day. ‘We stink. We’re not good enough.’ If I was a player that was being told that, I’d come out and prove everybody wrong, too,” Montgomery said.
Through three games, the play of the defensive line — ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and nose guard Jordan Phillips — has been the biggest surprise. The group has done more than hold its own.
They don’t get all the credit for 14th-ranked Sooners (3-0) currently being No. 14 in total defense and tied for fourth in total defense. All three levels have played at a higher level since the 2012 season for many reasons, but linebacker Corey Nelson gave the best summary of what’s changed.
“I feel like we didn’t have no leadership on defense last year. It wasn’t even more so being complacent, we just didn’t have no guys stepping up and taking control of the defense and grabbing it by the horns,” he said.
Nelson and cornerback Aaron Colvin get a lot of the credit for that change. But they’re seniors who’ve played in many big games over the last three years.
The defensive line doesn’t have a player of that caliber. Tackle Chuka Ndulue was a starter last season, but he’s yet to crack the starting lineup this year.
It’s been a collective effort up front.
“We took it among ourselves to do what we needed to do to stop all the critics and become better as a d-line,” Phillips said.
There have been philosophical changes made this season that have helped. In layman’s terms, the defensive line is no longer being used to occupy blocks. They’re firing off the ball, getting in the backfield and are expected to make plays. That change has created opportunities that didn’t exist in previous years.
Players like the changes. It allows them to make more tackles and create the negative plays the Sooners struggled to fashion last season.
Montgomery also believes the depth he truly needs is developing. Ultimately, it will be the key to the Sooners developing a dominant defensive line.
“There’s competition in the room and I think at the end of the day, when there’s competition, guys are getting better,” he said. “Guys are holding guys accountable because if somebody slips up, the next guy’s in. So, that’s how we talk in my room.”
It’s that kind of accountability the Sooners lacked last season.
The biggest change Montgomery made was the expectations they face on an every-day basis. He’s set an ironclad standard for how his guys would play.
“I don’t wanna ever see them walking on the field, not knocking people back, not making plays, not getting off blocks,” Montgomery said. “If there’s a day that goes by and I don’t hold them accountable for those things, then I’m wrong.”
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