The internet is a strange place sometimes. Yesterday I threw out the contention that the 2017 Texas defensive backfield was the fastest in Big 12 history…
Contention: The 2017 Texas defensive backfield (secondary and LBs) was the fastest the Big 12 has ever seen. Keep in mind that they played a dime package and the 2 LBs were Malik (ran a 4.52 at the combine) and Johnson (has run a 10.6 100m). Challengers?
— Ian Boyd (@Ian_A_Boyd) May 9, 2018
If you click the link to the tweet and read the thread you’ll eventually find a day-long debate that primarily involved myself, Allen Kenney of BlatantHomerism, and former OU All-American linebacker Rufus Alexander. The topic? Not the speed of the Texas defense but whether or not my major contention of 2017 about the Oklahoma defense was fair or not. To understand how that debate went in that direction I’d encourage you to read the thread, but I wanted to recap here some of my own thoughts on that debate and the major rebuttals that Kenney, Alexander, and also @ParishK10 made.
My perception of the challenge facing the 2017 Oklahoma defense
I had the primary question confront OU in 2017 as how they were going to utilize 5-star LB Caleb Kelly in a way that would work against the explosive spread offenses in the Big 12. While athletic, Kelly isn’t a DB in terms of his coverage skill set and I had major questions about how they’d hold up against all of the brilliant and experienced QBs on the schedule.
After early success against Ohio State, Oklahoma went on to post the following performances:
Baylor: 463 passing yards, 9.3 ypa, 4-0 TD/INT, 41 points
Iowa St: 368 passing yards, 13.6 ypa, 3-0 TD/INT, 38 points
Texas: 289 passing yards, 6.7 ypa, 1-0 TD/INT, 24 points
K-State: 144 passing yards, 10.3 ypa, 1-1 TD/INT, 35 points
T-Tech: 322 passing yards, 8.9 ypa, 4-1 TD/INT, 27 points
OSU: 448 passing yards, 8.3 ypa, 5-2 TD/INT, 52 points
TCU: 269 passing yards, 9.3 ypa, 1-0 TD/INT, 20 points
Kansas: 123 passing yards, 3.6 ypa, 0-1 TD/INT, 3 points
WVU: 137 passing yards, 6.8 ypa, 0-0 TD/INT, 31 points
TCU (title): 234 passing yards, 6.3 ypa, 2-1 TD/INT, 17 points
Georgia (playoff): 210 passing yards, 7.2 ypa, 2-0 TD/INT, 54 points
Obviously given some of the point totals even on games where opponents didn’t throw the ball well, Oklahoma’s defense wasn’t really good at anything in 2017. You can see blips though of both particular brilliance and exceptional incompetence.
What was happening?
What I had pegged early on as a major issue for Oklahoma was that the insistence on playing Caleb Kelly instead of a DB was going to grievously limit the Sooners’ coverage options against spread sets. Particularly against trips sets where they’d either have to play Kelly way out in space and zone things up behind him or else drop a safety down and leave the opposite end corner isolated.
The main option for 2017 seemed to be the former, to spin down their strong safety and leave the boundary side corner by his lonesome. Beyond that, they tried to primarily use Jordan Thomas as their lockdown guy in the hopes that the senior, four-year starter would be able to anchor the D. Unfortunately for the Sooners, the notoriously unreliable Thomas got absolutely torched, particularly against Denzel Mims.
To my eyes this was all quite ridiculous, why depend on having superman at CB in order to play a Sam LB who finished the year with one sack, 3.5 TFL, and 11 run stuffs? Oklahoma should never have planned on that being the main defense but instead have used a nickel package to combat the spread teams on the schedule.
Rebuttal 1: OU needed the 3-4 for the non-conference games and hey, it almost worked!
Allen Kenney was the main proponent of this counter. The gist of it was that Oklahoma needed the 3-4 to handle Ohio State’s run game, that the nickel would have been run over, and that it’s silly to worry about the problems against the Big 12 when none of the Big 12 teams were responsible for preventing Oklahoma for achieving their goals for the season.
I think the first two points are actually wrong but I could grant that having the 3-4 in their back pocket was probably a useful counter for playing bigger, more powerful teams in the pre-conference slate and then the playoffs (potentially). I do think it was silly to plan their defensive strategy around beating non-B12 teams but I can at least grant that if that was indeed part of their thinking, they weren’t punished for thinking that way. On the other hand, Oklahoma probably can’t count on the same for 2018 without Baker Mayfield and will instead need their defense to be designed to be able to carry them to victory in a Big 12 game at some point.
The reason I don’t think Oklahoma needed the 3-4 to beat either Ohio State or Georgia center around Caleb Kelly’s play in that game on the perimeter. For starters, Oklahoma didn’t even play the run that well against Ohio State. The Buckeyes ran the ball 34 times for 167 yards at 6.9 ypc. They won because they were able to match up against the mesh passing game and J.T. Barrett had a horrible game. Also, Baker Mayfield lit up Ohio State’s own passing defense and lured the Buckeyes into more of a shootout in which they threw the ball more than they should. There’s also something to be said for the Buckeyes’ tendency in the Barrett era to run too many option plays in which opponents could make them beat them by running the QB on the option rather than the horrifying J.K. Dobbins (13 carries for 72 yards and a score in this one).
Another reason I don’t buy this is that all Kelly really offered was force play to the wide edge, which you can achieve with a gritty DB and a downhill safety if you like. Clemson shut out the Buckeyes the previous year using Dorian O’Daniel in Kelly’s position. O’Daniel is also more of a LB than a DB at 6-1, 220. However, they didn’t apex him and have him blow things up on the edge but played him outside of the slot to maintain that edge while the LBs and FS ran to the football in the alley.
That’s an easier gig and it helps if you’re big and strong but your opponent is a WR rather than a TE or OT on the edge. Oklahoma actually used Kelly some in that fashion in this game.
Rebuttal 2: OU didn’t have the depth at DB or the DL to pull off a nickel package
This was Rufus Alexander’s main frustration with my argument. Basically (paraphrasing) “you’re going to pull Caleb Kelly off the field to play…Chanse Sylvie? Tre Brown in the slot? Oklahoma didn’t have the DBs to do this, they had too many injures!”
I’d be a charlatan to try and deny that Oklahoma’s DB room this past year lacked depth. I will note that much of this argument came from the question of whether Oklahoma would be good on D in 2018 or not. So when many of the rebuttals went “well OU didn’t have the personnel to do that!” I kept thinking, “well who’s fault was that?” The answer, of course, is Mike Stoops, who is still in charge of this unit.
However, here’s my problem with both that argument and the use of OU’s DB play over the course of 2017 to supplement it. We don’t know how things might have gone if the Sooners had spent the previous offseason planning around being a nickel team. They had two main options for the year.
One was to say, “well, it’s not ideal for stopping the spread but playing Kelly at Sam and leaning on JT (someone text him, btw, make sure he’s not getting into trouble!) gets our best 11 on the field.” We know how that worked out…not well. You can say it’s easy for me to say that now with the benefit of hindsight but I also said it well before the season and before Will Sunderland was booted off the team.
The other was to say, “we aren’t where we need to be at DB (long stare at Mike Stoops) but we’re not going to be able to hold up in this league if we don’t get better so let’s buckle down and work hard with these kids. Maybe we’ll take some lumps early and we should probably use the 3-4 vs Ohio State but Mayfield can probably bail us out while they learn on the job.” The last point had to happen anyways and it would have really helped the Sooners if they’d had a better nickel package in a lot of games.
In fact, they did play the nickel in games against Texas and Tech (some of their better-ish performances) but they were done in by their obvious unfamiliarity with the scheme. Some teams ran motion against them in the 4-2-5 and they looked totally lost. Against Tech they tried a 3-3-5 that kept Kelly on the field and put Obo at DE but they didn’t know how to fit the run in it or really do anything. Nearly all of Tech’s offensive production came against the 3-3-5, which was a good idea for positioning Kelly and Obo better but obviously hadn’t been effectively taught to the team.
What might have been possible had they repped a single nickel package and worked harder in the offseason and during the season to make it playable? We don’t know. Couldn’t have been much worse though.
It’s also notable that if a lack of DBs and DB development is such a problem on your roster that you have to lean on freshman to get anything done then maybe you need more than one DB coach and maybe the guy in charge of recruiting on this side of the ball should be re-evaluated.
Alexander also noted that the Sooners couldn’t get pressure from anything other than Obo Okoronkwo off the edge, which is true. Playing Kelly at Sam in the 3-4 was supposed to help here but it unsurprisingly didn’t because A) he’s really not that great at it and B) it was too easy for opponents to make him play in space and be unable to rush the passer, much like for his superior predecessor Eric Striker. I think that 3-3-5 they used vs Tech might have been a good answer for that problem but again, we’ll never know.
Again, notable that if your DL can’t produce enough good players to carry a defense despite having two coaches dedicated to development there in a nominally 3-down structure then maybe there are deeper issues.
Rebuttal 3: OU’s plan actually worked once Tre Norwood took the field, then it was the lack of depth/XP at LB/S that killed them.
Norwood took the field as a starter in the first TCU game and served as the lockdown man from then on. After that early blip against TCU, in which most of the passing game damage was actually on throws to the RBs and a few big plays, the OU pass defense was considerably improved. The reason? Well at least part of it was that Tre Norwood held up in isolation a lot better than Jordan Thomas had done.
What killed the Sooners from then on was their other flaws, in particular how inconsistent (and frankly how soft) their run defense was.
So perhaps the OU plan wasn’t so terrible, they just didn’t have the right DB in place to make it work properly?
But my challenge here is that even if the coverage didn’t HAVE to be a killer and even if the nickel wouldn’t have drastically improved other problems (although it probably would have if they’d found the right personnel combo) the 3-4 didn’t work either.
The alternative conclusion: OU just didn’t have very good players but they will in 2018.
I believe at the heart of my debate with these various OU supporters was the question of whether OU’s problems are fixable in 2018. Kenney and Alexander were inclined to think that OU’s flawed roster were the main culprits and that the youth movement currently underway will clear up a lot of these issues.
I’m more inclined to think that there are systemic problems that will produce other issues, whether they are apparent at this juncture or not, and that while OU’s issues in getting a good D on the field in 2017 were somewhat understandable they still weren’t particularly forgivable.
Sparking hope for OU fans is the following facts:
-Early reviews on Boo Radley (Brendan Radley-Hiles) are very positive and he should eliminate their excuses for utilizing an effective nickel package.
-There was a decent amount of depth behind Obo Okoronkwo and whoever replaces him, Mark Jackson or Addison Gumbs, can minimize what they lose and maybe allow the packaging of fronts with more than one good pass-rushing threat.
-Norwood is back along with Jordan Parker, Parnell Motley, and Tre Brown, meaning competition and quality at CB that can prevent OU from getting exposed by good passing teams.
-Kenneth Murray is back at Mike LB and could be an anchor that helps guarantee better and more sound play up the middle.
In the coming weeks I’ll detail some thoughts on OU’s likely configurations on defense next year and how well they may hold up. In the meantime, let me know in the comments what you think of the debate.