OU football: Sooners' secondary rotation could continue to grow after bye week
NORMAN — If there’s ever time like the last seven months, OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is ready.
“I got a lot of notes on the next pandemic on how to change some things,” Grinch said recently. “That’s the real part of it.”
One of the things he’s questioned about the way he’s handled things since the COVID-19 pandemic flipped college football — and just about everything else — on its head is the way he worked to prepare his young defensive backs, especially the freshmen.
“They get a couple weeks in the weight room; the introduction to college football,” Grinch said. “And then all of a sudden, you’re into fall camp, and then you miss some time along the way and then you come back you’re immediately in game week.
“Well, in that moment it’s no longer about how do we get the freshmen, the young guys, reps. It’s how we prepare for games and trying to strike that balance — and I don’t know that we did a great job of it as I look at how we did things.”
Early in the season, Grinch leaned heavily on experience in the secondary and that’s no surprise — safeties Pat Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell, nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles and cornerback Tre Brown all returned after starting virtually every game a year ago. Jaden Davis started one game and played a significant amount at cornerback.
But when those experienced players struggled, Grinch and the rest of the Sooners’ coaches didn’t feel comfortable throwing those young players out there immediately.
There was a change in the win over Texas.
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Redshirt freshman Woodi Washington had played at times in the first three games but not consistently. Josh Eaton, despite being listed second on the depth chart at cornerback with two other freshmen, played in the opener against Missouri State but didn’t see action in losses to Kansas State and Iowa State.
Against the Longhorns, Washington played a much bigger role, seeing his most significant action outside of last year’s Peach Bowl when he was thrust into duty following Radley-Hiles’ ejection.
Washington came up big with five tackles — all solo — and a fourth-quarter interception that looked at the time like it would put the game away.
Eaton didn’t play as significant of a role but did play more than just mop-up minutes and recorded one tackle.
“I thought that was helpful,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said of the expanded rotation in the secondary. “Kept some of those guys fresh.”
Now coming off a bye week and into Saturday’s game at TCU, that rotation figures to continue to grow as those players continue to get more acclimated to the defense.
“Are they progressing? Without question,” Grinch said. “Trying to find ways to get guys in games, but they have to perform in those moments and they have to give us reasons that they will in practice.”
Grinch overhauled recruiting in the secondary when he arrived, working on finding bigger, faster, more versatile defenders.
Players like Washington, Eaton, Jeremiah Criddell and some of the others who were recruited since Grinch’s arrival certainly fit that bill, though it’s time for those players to start showing that difference on the field.
“I think they earned the opportunity to move forward,” Riley said. “I think it’s what we’ve been seeing in practice. Those guys have been improving and needed this time. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re ready to put some of those guys in the game. We have a couple others who are right there and ready to take some snaps too.”