OU football: Coaches notice improvements with new talent, returning experience on defensive line

Oklahoma defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux works with his position group at a 2018 practice in Norman.

NORMAN — Calvin Thibodeaux insists there’s no secret strategy. He plugs himself into the everyday technology tools required to connect with high school recruits — FaceTime, Twitter, iMessage — and goes to work from there. 

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s about identifying talent and building relationships, and just being constant in that pursuit.”

Approaching his third year as an Oklahoma defensive line coach, Thibodeaux’s recruiting efforts — which landed him on Rivals.com’s list of top-25 assistant coach recruiters — helped the Sooners collect five, well-regarded prospects from the 2018 class.

Two of those newcomers — defensive ends Ronnie Perkins and Jalen Redmond — are already enrolled and contributing to spring improvements up front, convincing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops this may be OU’s strongest group in some time.

“The defensive line has become a factor,” Stoops said. “We have a physical presence about us up front. … We’re trying to play them a little differently — a little more aggressive at times.”

More disruptive line play is a critical starting point in OU’s goal of mirroring other college football blueblood programs that annually produce top defenses. The Sooners were the lone 2017 College Football Playoff team without a top-10 total defense ranking.

For the past two seasons, OU has recorded less than 10 interceptions. Only twice in the past 10 years — 2010 and 2008 — have the Sooners led the Big 12 in that category.

A better pass rush could change that.

“We want to make plays. We definitely harp on that,” OU defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said. “That’s a combination of things. We’ve got to put them in situations by maybe bringing pressure, or doing things to enhance that.”

So far this spring, returning defensive tackles Marquise Overton, Neville Gallimore and Dillon Faamatau are playing at a speed that hasn’t required much intervention from coaches. Amani Bledsoe, who can play multiple positions, and Kenneth Mann provide another shot of experience.

“Things that I was coaching, I don’t have to coach because they are policing it themselves right now,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s encouraging.”

But beyond the players coming back, it’s OU’s youth movement — a product of Thibodeaux and defensive tackles coach Ruffin McNeill’s recent recruiting — that figures to make the biggest difference long term.

Redmond, Perkins, Ron Tatum and Michael Thompson — the latter two won’t join the program until summer — were all four-star prospects. Thompson’s commitment at the midnight hour, on the Feb. 7 signing day, helped push Thibodeaux into the limelight. Two days later, the coach was recognized on Rivals.com’s top recruiter list.

With fewer top defensive line prospects available nationally compared to other positions, OU’s ability to sell itself to those players makes a difference.

“You’ve got to find a way to push ‘em our way, some way,” Stoops said. “I think [Thibodeaux] has done a good job developing his players and really becoming a strong recruiter.”

Some coaches are cautious when discussing recruiting services’ star rating systems, but Stoops admits, the stars mean something.

“We’re starting to get higher-rated kids, and that’s what you need,” Stoops said. “Three-star guys, you can develop and have a good football team, but a ton of them aren’t gonna make a difference. That’s tough. Getting those higher-rated defensive linemen, I think, is a big deal.”

Thibodeaux doesn’t accept all the credit, now that OU has some of those players. McNeill, 59, possesses experience that factors in, and OU coach Lincoln Riley has been quick to lend a hand, too.

“It’s pretty awesome when you can hand the phone to your head man and he’s calling out [recruits’] brother and sisters’ names,” Thibodeaux said.

OU’s efforts securing commitments for next year’s roster are largely done. It’s spring, a time when compliments are easily handed out and regular-season pressures are still a summer away.

Coaches are insistent, though, that the winds have changed along OU’s defensive front.

“I know I say that a lot,” Stoops said, “but I think [Thibodeaux] and [McNeill] have done a great job with those guys. I think we’ll see a difference next year.”

OU sack totals (last 10 seasons)

• 2017: 26

• 2016: 25

• 2015: 40

• 2014: 32

• 2013: 33

• 2012: 25

• 2011: 40

• 2010: 37

• 2009: 38

• 2008: 42

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