OU's Okoronkwo leads revamped defense in 2017
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) —
Oklahoma is hoping a defensive shakeup produces better results.
The Sooners hit rock bottom last season when they surrendered 854 yards in a 66-59 win at Texas Tech. The Sooners held all six of their remaining opponents to 28 points or fewer, but that ugly victory still prompted some adjustments.
Oklahoma has shifted from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 to try to get more pressure on quarterbacks, added Ruffin McNeill as a defensive line and assistant head coach and increased the amount of hitting in fall practice. The seventh-ranked Sooners will find out if the changes make a difference, starting Saturday in their season opener against Texas-El Paso.
"We know we have to improve from last year," said linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a captain. "We looked at how we did statistically and we weren't happy about it. We know what we have to do to be better. We went out there, and we're going to try and get it done."
The defense has accepted much of the responsibility for the slow start that kept the Sooners out of the College Football Playoff last season. Oklahoma lost two of its first three before closing with 10 straight wins.
"We know that we have to start fast," Okoronkwo said. "We don't feel like we started as fast as we should have the past few years and we have to do something about it. That's the approach we're taking."
Okoronkwo said the hitting has been unlike any previous camp, with players battling as though they are facing an outside opponent. Coach Lincoln Riley said that was by design.
"You've just got to be able to look at each team differently and just ask the simple question, 'What do we need to play at the highest level?'" Riley said. "And when we looked at this team ... it just made sense for us as a staff to add a little bit of physicality to it."
Okoronkwo will be a critical piece if the Sooners are to improve. The preseason All-Big 12 choice had 71 tackles, nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss last season. Cornerback Jordan Thomas, also a preseason All-Big 12 pick, led the conference with 17 pass breakups last season.
The defensive line features returnees Matt Romar, D.J. Ward and Neville Gallimore. Linebackers Caleb Kelly and Emmanuel Beal and safety Steven Parker add experience.
Freshman linebacker Kenneth Murray is expected to provide an immediate boost, possibly as a starter. Riley said Murray might be the most athletic linebacker the Sooners have had in his nearly three years with the program.
"The guy's physically so good, and he's just getting better so fast," Riley said. "He's going to make a lot of plays right now, and it'll be a matter of time before he's making just about all of them. And so we feel really, really good about his development.
Okoronkwo is trying to help bring Murray along quickly.
"Since he's gotten here, he's been right next to me," he said. "That's like my little brother. We were just watching film this morning. He's ready to go. I'm ready to see what he does."