OU football: Oklahoma focused on building defensive depth, talent after harsh wake-up call against LSU

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch talks to the defense during the Sooners' game against LSU the Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

OU’s fall camp practices are, once again, in full swing, and barring any future disruptions, the Sooners are moving full speed toward their season opener against Missouri State.

Coach Lincoln Riley halted practices for a week from Aug. 8-14, citing a break was necessary with the team’s 2020 opener rescheduled from Aug. 29 to Sept. 12.

The program resumed team activities last Friday. The mere sight of football has been a joyous one for OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, considering the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic fosters.

“Not to sound too euphoric about it, but just the sheer joy by players and coaches alike now going back a couple of weeks,” said Grinch of getting back to training camp. 

“There is a reason why you chose to be a football coach, to actually be out on the field with the guys and coaching the game. There's also a reason these guys chose to be football players and come to a place like Oklahoma. Just the excitement level.”

To add to his excitement, OU held its first fall scrimmage on Tuesday. Grinch's review of it, however, was mixed.

The second-year defensive coordinator led off an answer to how Tuesday’s scrimmage went by acknowledging he thought the Sooners put in quality work, overall. He appreciated the progress, the effort and players knowing their assignments.

The OU defense, which took major steps from 2018 to 2019 under Grinch’s leadership, still has much to prove with less than a month away from its season.

“The chief negative that I would circle is the tackling was very poor. To be expected, but by the same token let’s not make excuses. …   There’s a lot of things we’ve got to get corrected,” Grinch said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be. There was a screen play [Tuesday] that kept me up last night. So, individual plays that present frustration.”

OU is adjusting to a few injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Senior linebacker Caleb Kelly, junior college transfer defensive back Justin Harrington and redshirt freshman Marcus Hicks are out with what Riley has called "substantial" injuries.

Kelly and Hicks sustained their injuries during fall camp, while Harrington suffered his prior to reporting to campus for the summer.

Depth issues are easier to sort out in August, rather than November. Grinch has also been keen to rotate and distribute as many reps to his defensive players as possible.

The loss of Kelly, Harrington and Hicks undoubtedly puts the Sooner defense in an unenviable position. It’s not the first time Grinch, entering his second season, has dealt with health issues.

“You just think back to last year, we had five ACL [injuries] on defense and some other stuff including injuries as the year went on,” Grinch said, “and obviously the mentality is always next man up. You don't sit there and wallow and grieve as to who is not out there and all those things, because that's the responsible thing to do because ultimately no one cares. The world doesn't care what you're lacking.”

OU returns the services of defensive back Tre Norwood, who Grinch said is in line to be a starter after missing most of 2019 due to a fall-camp injury. Outside linebacker Jon-Michael Terry is also back after sustaining an injury midway through last season. His return is just as significant as a team veteran.

Grinch’s impression of training camp thus far has been mostly positive as the Sooners build toward college football's unprecedented season.

“Just in terms of overall through eight or nine days, been pleased,” Grinch said. “Felt it culminated with a good, about 50-play scrimmage. About a half of football. Got a lot of young guys their first week and all those things. For a scrimmage, I think you leave there with more positives than negatives. And we’ve got to attack those negatives.”

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