OU football: Four storylines for Oklahoma's defense, special teams this spring

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray celebrates a play during the Sooners' game against Alabama on Dec. 29, 2018, at the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida.

After being hired in January, Alex Grinch recognized he had a brief timeframe for getting Oklahoma’s defense in order.

The new Sooner defensive coordinator’s first real practices begin this week. Lincoln Riley will hold a press conference Wednesday and OU’s first spring workout takes place Thursday.

Here are four storylines for the defense and special teams this spring:

1. New era: Grinch’s turnover-focused philosophy should invigorate OU’s fan base. But more importantly over the next month, it must invigorate players too — and they’ll need to grasp the the ins and outs of it.

OU’s defensive transition began in the days after Grinch’s hiring, but it will really take shape now as he tinkers with personnel and installs the system. As the safeties coach, he’ll have a direct hand in improving a group that ranked last nationally in passing yards allowed last season.

Beyond Grinch’s addition, there’s also new assistants Roy Manning (cornerbacks) and Brian Odom (linebackers). These are important weeks for the staff and players to jell.

2. Improvement up front: This was an area former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops took pride in last spring, and that confidence carried into 2018 fall camp. But the results were largely the same for what was supposed to be a much improved group.

Outside of the Sooners’ first few games last fall, they wreaked little havoc at the line of scrimmage. The good news? They only lose Amani Bledsoe among last year’s defensive line starters.

OU hoped Neville Gallimore would anchor its defensive line the last two seasons. That didn’t happen, but there’s hope it does going into the fifth-year senior’s last campaign in Norman.

Redshirt freshman Jalen Redmond and sophomore Ronnie Perkins’ developments will be worth watching. Also, defensive tackle Michael Thompson will be in the mix at some point; he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason but may not be fully healthy until fall camp.

Jamal Morris (defensive back), Jonathan Perkins (linebacker), LaRon Stokes (DL) will all be on campus this spring as early enrollees. Stokes, at 6 feet 4, 235 pounds, could be a key addition up front with his maturity. He’ll be a junior in the fall.

3. Growing pains: Five OU starters in the Orange Bowl were freshmen or sophomores. Factor in a few reserves — DaShaun White, Delarrin Turner-Yell, Brendan Radley-Hiles — and the group looked even younger.

This is a big spring for many of them, namely the juniors. Kenneth Murray (linebacker) and Robert Barnes (safety) are two who could stand to make big jumps as they transition to veteran defenders.

It’s also key period for Radley-Hiles, who struggled living up the hype coaches and media put on him as a true freshman. The defensive back enrolled early in 2018 and stands to benefit from his second spring in the program.

4. Replacing Seibert: OU saw positive results from putting better athletes on the field for special teams, and it returns both CeeDee Lamb (punt returns, 12.8 yards per game in 2018) and Tre Brown (kickoff returns, 23.7 yards per game).

Most of the unit is in good hands, but replacing kicker/punter Austin Seibert might take some getting used to. Long field goals weren’t always his strength, but he still finished his career with most points (499) by a kicker in NCAA history while handling all of OU’s kicking duties.

Gabe Brkic will likely take over the placekicking duties. The freshman appeared in just one game in 2018 — thus retaining his redshirt year — and made one point-after attempt, sending three of four kickoffs for touchbacks.

Redshirt sophomore Reeves Mundschau was a considered a top-10 punter coming out of high school and will finally get his shot as a Sooner.

OU spring football dates to know

• Wednesday: Lincoln Riley spring press conference

• Thursday: First practice

• March 13: Pro Day

• March 26-24: Spring break

• April 13: Spring Game