Turnovers haven’t lost their appeal around Oklahoma’s defense.
Their celebrations at least haven’t taken a hit.
OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s unit, designated as the red squad in the Sooners’ spring game on Saturday, recovered a fumble, courtesy defensive lineman Josh Ellison, that set off a party in the south end zone.
The defense also netted a safety and gave incumbent starting quarterback Spencer Rattler fits in the pocket.
Though it’s an inconsequential aspect to the program’s spring game, the Sooner defense ultimately didn’t win on the scoreboard. The offense-led white squad won 30-29.
Perhaps the “loss” helped Grinch’s postgame message carry more weight.
“After the game, it was kinda the message of don’t be satisfied,” OU linebacker Caleb Kelley said. “You don’t get to put on the pads now until Aug. 6 and so you have to go to work. You gotta find another way to get better every single day.”
It’s no secret OU’s defense has high expectations for itself ahead of the 2021 season.
Saturday was a glimpse at what they might offer.
So far through spring camp, it’s been a unit that’s consistently improved, according to OU’s coaches, and is building unprecedented depth for the Lincoln Riley era.
OU knows what it has in an Isaiah Thomas, a breakout defensive lineman last season who wasn’t active on Saturday. It also didn’t need to rely on fellow returners Perrion Winfrey or Nik Bonitto, both of whom played sparingly in the spring scrimmage to make room for others to compete.
What the group showed is it has no issue challenging OU’s offensive line, which trotted out tackles Wanya Morris and Erik Swenson, guards Marquis Hayes and Chris Murray and center Andrew Raym to start the day before moving to tackles Brey Walker and Aaryn Parks, guards Darrell Simpson and Marcus Alexander and center Ian McIver.
“It can be a fairly deep unit talking about the front as we get into fall both on the edges and inside,” Grinch said. “Very comfortable with a lot of names.”
The Sooner secondary, which isn’t as experienced as OU’s defensive front or linebackers, showed it can compete as well against the offense’s numerous playmakers at receiver.
Rattler was limited to six completions on 14 attempts and 116 passing yards. He managed to find Mario Williams on a deep 50-yard connection. But the Sooner defensive backs kept OU’s passing game in check, making for a bittersweet day for Riley.
“During the actual moment when I’m calling a play, yes,” Riley said of the frustrations OU’s defense presents, “and then the second it’s over I’m happy they’re on my team.”
Riley had plenty of reason to be happy with his own side of the ball.
While OU’s defense gave Rattler a difficult time over the roughly hour-and-a-half exhibition, the Sooners found promise in their newcomers.
Eric Gray, the Tennessee running back transfer, diced OU’s defense for a 19-yard touchdown.
Jackson Sumlin, son of former OU assistant Kevin Sumlin, caught a touchdown pass from presumed backup quarterback Caleb Williams.
No play was as electric as Jadon Haselwood’s one-handed grab for a 20-yard pickup.
Despite his fumble, Williams also shined with a team-leading 83 yards receiving on five catches.
“I think overall, I would say it was a successful spring game,” Riley said. “But more than that, I thought our players handled the majority of the day well,” he continued. “There was some really good, clean football. I thought some young guys that stepped up and got some nerves out and made some plays and got a feel for what it’s like to play in one of the great football stadiums in America. It looks like we came out pretty injury-free. Overall, a successful day and a good cap to end our spring.”