OU football: How Sooners' secondary depth went from 'alarming' to 'much improved' in Alex Grinch's second season
NORMAN — Lincoln Riley shudders at the thought.
What would’ve happened if the Sooners would’ve been in a position a year ago where they had to play without Pat Fields, Brendan Radley-Hiles and another starting defensive back like they did Saturday against Baylor.
“Gosh, if we would have had that many guys out, I don’t know if we would have been able to play last year,” Riley said. “And certainly the quality wouldn’t have been what it was the other night.”
While the line has been the strength of Alex Grinch’s defense this season, it’s in the secondary where Grinch’s overhaul is most apparent.
When Grinch arrived nearly two years ago, he called the lack of depth in the secondary “alarming.”
Oklahoma played just three cornerbacks most of the season, and didn’t go much beyond Delarrin Turner-Yell and Fields at safety or Radley-Hiles at nickel.
Put the Sooners in the situation they were in against Baylor in 2019, and they would’ve been forced to roll out players who had played just a handful of snaps before being thrown into the fire.
But instead, OU was able to re-insert Jaden Davis into the starting lineup with Woodi Washington out. Davis was that third corner a year ago, who started the first five games of this season before Washington powered his way into the starting lineup.
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They were able to put Jeremiah Criddell in for Radley-Hiles. Criddell’s playing time has steadily risen as the year has gone on, emerging as a strong rotation piece after playing just three games a year ago as a freshman.
The one spot that required a lot of scrambling was at the safety spot opposite Turner-Yell. But even there, Robert Barnes, the player they moved over after he shifted to linebacker in the offseason, had made nine career starts and played in several other critical games.
Barnes has put on about 30 pounds from last season, as he’s moved to linebacker, but didn’t hesitate when Grinch texted him.
Sunday night after the Bedlam win and asked Barnes about moving back to safety for the week.
“Yes sir!!!!” Barnes responded.
“I didn’t hesitate for a second,” Barnes said. “I was ready to go.”
And though their depth took a significant hit, they still had players like Tre Norwood and freshman D.J. Graham to rotate in, Graham at cornerback and Norwood at just about anywhere he was needed. Graham, like Criddell, has steadily increased his role as the season has progressed. Norwood had been a starter before missing last season with a knee injury.
Both of those reserves had interceptions against Baylor.
“The competitive depth is certainly better,” Riley said. “Just more guys that we are confident in putting in the game and that we want to get snaps.
“We are taking starters out to get them snaps. So that’s, without a doubt, much improved.”
That depth has even grown significantly since early in the season when the Sooners lost to Kansas State and Iowa State. It figures to continue to be a benefit this Saturday at West Virginia (11 a.m., ABC), then the following week in the Big 12 Championship Game against the Cyclones.
Though Barnes has spent most of the season with another group, he’s watched the secondary improve steadily.
“You can see the overall confidence just build up,” Barnes said. “We have a standard that we are supposed to play to in every single game and every single practice. I think that, this year two of being with Coach Grinch and his defense, we’ve all really committed to that standard.
“We know that, no matter what, if we go out there and commit to that standard, anything is possible.”