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OU football: Defense needed debriefing from the ghosts and scars of the recent past

NORMAN — Alex Grinch thought he was moving to Norman. Turns out, his address was Amityville. The Switzer Center was haunted.

The Oklahoma defense, spooked by poltergeists Patrick Mahomes and Sam Ehlinger and Tua Tagovailoa, was shell-shocked, if not ashamed. The school of the Selmon brothers and the Boz, Tony Casillas and Tommie Harris, routinely gave up at least 40 points. Giving up 50 was no big deal.

So in the bowels of McLane Stadium three weeks ago in Waco, after OU pitched a second-half shutout and beat Baylor 34-31, the Sooner defensive coordinator lauded his survivors.

“I think these kids have been through a lot,” Grinch said. “I think sometimes I discount what we took over. Maybe there were some ghosts in there that we've gotta make sure that we have an understanding of … some scars, some ghosts maybe that I wasn't fully maybe appreciative of.”

Consider Grinch’s exorcism a success. The Sooners aren’t back to the days of Granville Liggins or even Rocky Calmus. But they’ve allowed just three touchdowns in the last 10 quarters, and in the Big 12 Championship Game on Saturday, there’s reason to believe in the defense as the Sooners seek a berth in the College Football Playoff.

OU has gone from The Shining to shining.

“It’s been a wild and rocky road that we’ve been on,” said sophomore safety Brendan Radley-Hiles. “But I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade it at all, ups and downs.”

Remember how Bob Stoops has talked about his first Sooner team, back in 1999? How the coaches had to build up a bunch of beaten-down ballplayers who were void of confidence? That’s what’s happened in the last 11 months with the Oklahoma defense.

“I think that’s definitely been part of it … a new mentality,” said Lincoln Riley, who fired Mike Stoops in October 2018 and three months later hired Grinch, late of Ohio State. “How does that happen? I think a lot of it was trying to reshape how these guys think, the way they work, the expectations, all of that. It’s come a long ways and there’s still a lot of room to grow there, but that’s been one of the biggest transformations."

OU now leads the Big 12 in total defense, which is based on yards allowed per game. That’s nice but not particularly relevant. But in defensive efficiency – getting off the field without allowing points – the Sooners have risen from dead last in the Big 12 for 2018 to now sixth, literally only two touchdowns allowed from second place.

The Sooner defense has played mostly well all season. Not in the first half at Kansas State or the second half at Baylor. But still, it’s 2019. Rod Shoate and Jerry Tubbs would struggle at times with these offenses.

“I like to think of it a little bit like we were a lost bunch,” said linebacker DaShaun White. “We were a bunch of really talented players, we wanted to be really good, but we just needed someone to take us.

“As soon as (Grinch) came in, I felt like we all trusted him pretty quick because he didn’t bullcrap around. You know? He was really straightforward. And then he had the track record.”

Grinch says the debriefing continues. Grinch says every team needs it, but these Sooners were an extreme case. A defense that had been to two straight national semifinals, despite itself. A defense that had been on the biggest stage, but with its head spinning around as fast as Jerry Jeudy or Sony Michel scored touchdowns.

So Grinch has had to turn ghostbuster since arriving in January.

“Making them believe that we have the tools that we believe in as a coaching staff, that we can implement, that if they do X, Y and Z, we have a chance to be” successful, Grinch said.

White lauds the exorcist. White says he’s never seen a coach with a different, daily message to improve the mindset, effort and attitude.

Stuff like E+R=O (events plus responses equals outcomes); borrowed, not hatched, by Grinch. Or resilience, a big theme this week.

“How even the best players, they don’t feel good,” White said. “That’s been really big this week. (Grinch) talked about Michael Jordan’s flu game. He didn’t feel his best, but his performance isn’t based on how he felt that day. If you’re going to be great, you’re not going to wake up every game day and feel great.

“You don’t have to put music on to make you feel a certain way. You’re a performer. This is what you do. So you should be able to perform the same all the time.”

That’s a first cousin to Bob Stoops’ original message. No excuses. Now 20 years later, a different breed of Oklahoma ghosts have been scattered, and the horror has fled Amityville.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

Related Photos
<strong>Going into Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has the Sooner defense playing its best football of the season. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Going into Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has the Sooner defense playing its best football of the season. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-fc0ded3079eeee77230461815a5eba76.jpg" alt="Photo - Going into Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has the Sooner defense playing its best football of the season. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Going into Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has the Sooner defense playing its best football of the season. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Going into Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has the Sooner defense playing its best football of the season. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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