Tramel: OU football defensive alums bemoan Sooners' tackling deficiencies
No. 20 in burnt orange came barrelling through the hole on the Cotton Bowl carpet, and defensive back Darrol Ray thought of many things he’d rather be facing.
“I’d rather tackle a small bus or a Volkwagen than Earl Campbell,” Ray says 41 years after his final game as an OU defensive back. “Nobody wanted to get caught in that tractor’s gears.”
But Ray and his teammates did it anyway. Just as Sooners before them and after them, earning their stripes when tackling was required, not suggested. When missed tackles meant a seat on the bench and a harangue from an angry coach.
Same with the Longhorns. OU-Texas for decades was a Braveheart movie. Hand-to-hand combat. Calling all ambulances. Survival of the toughest.
That was then. This is now. Now, 74 major-college teams have played games. Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every college game, ranks the Longhorns 72nd and the Sooners 73rd in tackling. Bless your soul, 74th-ranked Vanderbilt.
Texas’ tackling at Texas Tech on Sept. 26 was awful, and the Sooners’ tackling at Iowa State last Saturday was no better. It left OU defensive alums feeling quite dismayed.
“Painful,” said Tony Casillas, a nose guard on Barry Switzer’s great teams of the mid-1980s. “It’s the only word I can think of.”
Ray, a defensive back from 1975-79, thought of another word. “Poor, and it’s not OU’s standards,” Ray said.
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Jonathan Jackson, a defensive end of more recent vintage (2001-04), called it, “frustrating.”
“Atrocious,” said linebacker Curtis Lofton (2005-07).
Iowa State receivers routinely broke away from OU’s undersized defensive backs. Worse yet, Cyclone tailback Breece Hall repeatedly broke tackles nearer the line of scrimmage. It’s one thing to miss tackles in the vast expanse of the gridiron; it’s quite another to miss tackles in the confined areas near the line of scrimmage.
“As a defender, you wanted to be in a phone booth,” said Lofton, who made 120 starts over eight NFL seasons. “Hard to wiggle out of a tackle in a phone booth.”
But Hall did it consistently Saturday night in Ames, and Iowa State’s 37-30 victory imperiled the Sooner season.
“There’s an effort and an attitude that’s missing,” Ray said. “If it’s Joe Washington, and he pulls a rabbit out of his backside — where did he go? — but this is a guy that’s no Joe Washington and he’s no Barry Sanders.
“Basic tackling with the shoulder, even if he takes you for a ride of two or three yards, isn’t asking too much for a guy on a D-I scholarship.”
The more recent Sooners are a little more forgiving. Even Ray and Casillas acknowledge the shackles placed on modern defenses. Every rule change benefits the offense. The advent of the spread means defenders must track vertical and horizontal, so physicality and toughness sometimes give way to speed and agility.
Plus, tackling is practiced less than ever, as a health consideration. And now with the COVID-19 pandemic, off-season workouts and in-season drills have been lessened.
But still. At the core of defense is tackling. It’s fundamentally what the game is all about. The player with the ball? Get him on the ground.
“It’s a state of mind,” said Casillas, who ranks with Lee Roy Selmon and Roy Williams as the best defenders in OU history. “It’s ugly. But dude, if you’re not going to get takeaways, you gotta get the guy down on the ground. That philosophy is timeless. Don’t care if you’re playing in the ‘80s, or 2020. That won’t change.”
Lincoln Riley this week hinted at possible personnel changes to shore up deficiencies. But the Sooners’ defensive depth has not been great in recent years. It’s not like defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is sitting on a gold mine of talent.
“I feel for Grinch and those guys, because I know they emphasize” tackling, Lofton said. “I had two guys behind me. If I wasn’t willing to do it, they were willing to. I don’t think they have that kind of depth.”
Jackson, one of the best pass rushers of the Bob Stoops era, says defense, more than anything, is an attitude.
“You have to have 11 guys with an attitude of, ‘I’m going to make the play,’” Jackson said. “And everyone has to take it personal and everyone has to buy in.
“It’s difficult to have a great defense. Great defense has to take 11 guys. Which is difficult to do. And it starts with tackling.”
Let’s be fair. Missed tackles always have been with us. I wrote about missed tackles 20 years ago. I might have written about missed tackles 40 years ago, I just don’t remember and don’t have the archives to check.
But tackling is more important than ever, for this reason. Offensive Einsteins scheme to get talented players more free than ever before. They’re like NBA teams, searching out one-on-one advantages.
In such an environment, when you get a chance to lay hands on the ballcarrier, you’ve got to get him down.
“Some of it is just want-to,” Lofton said.
Jackson used the same term. He remembers the late Brandon Everage, a 170-pound free safety in the early ‘00s and one of the hardest-hitters from the Stoops era.
“Buck 70,” Jackson said. “To me, the size isn’t that big of an issue if a guy has the attitude and the want-to.”
Want-to generally isn’t a problem in the Cotton Bowl, Earl Campbell or no Earl Campbell. Combatants on each side seem sufficiently motivated.
“I know their soul gets ripped out every week,” Casillas said about the current Sooner defenders. “People talk about how bad you are. A school known as Quarterback U., and you don’t play any defense.”
There’s a way to change that. Tackle the man with the ball.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.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 oklahoman.com/berrytramel.