OU football: Sooners' defensive improvement paying big dividends on recruiting trail
NORMAN — When OU defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux started recruiting Kelvin Gilliam Jr., he sold the four-star defensive tackle from the Washington, D.C., area on a vision.
When Sooners’ cornerbacks coach Roy Manning worked on getting Latrell McCutchin away from the Austin area and away from his Alabama commit, he had to get McCutchin to see the plan for what Manning and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wanted the secondary to look like.
When Jamar Cain moved from Arizona State and kept recruiting four-star defensive end Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge, Cain had to convince Rawlins-Kibonge that Norman, not Stanford, offered him the best path forward.
Now, with signing day arriving Wednesday, the way the Sooners have recruited defensively has shifted.
The success on the field — OU enters Saturday’s Big 12 Championship Game against Iowa State with the No. 16 total defense in college football, No. 4 against the run, No. 6 in sacks and No. 5 on third downs — has paid off on the recruiting trail.
Gilliam looks at what Isaiah Thomas has done this season and sees the way he could be used with the Sooners, shifting inside and outside depending on situation and need.
McCutchin sees a freshman like D.J. Graham’s role expanding and expanding and envisions the opportunity for early playing time.
Rawlins-Kibonge looks at how Cain has developed his group of defensive ends and outside linebackers and salivates at the notion of being asked to make big plays like Ronnie Perkins and Nik Bonitto have made week-in and week-out.
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“Way back then when they offered me (it was different),” Gilliam Jr. said. “It’s easier to envision myself playing in that defensive front, rotating me from defensive end to defensive tackle. It’s easier seeing the product now and it makes me more comfortable signing.”
The Sooners have five defensive commits in the Rivals 250 rankings of the top players of the 2021 class, and another — Billy Bowman — who could wind up playing on the defensive side.
Four of those players, plus Bowman, are ranked in the top 100. In the last five classes combined, the Sooners have signed five Rivals top-100 defenders.
It’s not just that OU has raised its profile among defensive recruits. The Sooners are also outpacing the rest of the Big 12. Texas is the only other school with a Rivals 250 commit on the defensive side. The Longhorns had four, but just one in the top 100.
Lincoln Riley has often talked about the difficulty in recruiting elite offensive players early in his Sooners tenure.
But that quickly changed once Baker Mayfield’s growth became evident, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined to run for more than 2,000 yards, Mark Andrews and Dede Westbrook emerged as targets and the Sooners’ offensive line came together.
Now, the same evolution is happening on the defensive side.
“It went from trying to explain to them where we felt like this was going, trying to kind of share the vision even though it hadn’t happened yet, then it kind of started to happen.
“There were some results and that was good. Now you see a consistent climb. Now you see not just one year now, but two years worth of players who have really grown together and played at a high level. I think it gets harder and harder to ignore if you are a recruit.”
Danny Stutsman was one of the early defensive commits in the 2021 class, making his decision in May.
“You look at this year compared to last year and the year before that, and you see the improvement that’s really been happening,” Stutsman said. “Once this 2021 class gets in there and you can see an even greater improvement, that’ll just speak for itself.”
Rawlins-Kibonge heard plenty of talk during his recruitment about OU’s defense.
But his belief in Cain and the progress the Sooners made last year before Cain’s arrival, led him to commit in June and the job OU has done defensively has helped keep him sold.
“It’s not really a numbers thing for me,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “I’m not looking at how many came out, this that and the third. I’m looking at who’s best there right now, what’s going on there right now. And right now Jamar Cain is developing people to go to the league, so that’s where I want to go.”
The change is evident and it figures to keep paying off down the road.
“They’re really changing the culture,” McCutchin, a four-star cornerback who committed to the Sooners in July after a long commitment to Alabama, said. “And I feel like with the guys that we have coming in, and the coaches that we have, we can have one of the top defenses of the country if not the top defense in the country.”
Grinch has been an effective recruiter during previous stops, but it’s much easier to convince recruits to jump aboard when the prospects — and their parents and coaches — can see on film what can come instead of just hearing it in words.
“Anybody can be a salesman,” Grinch said. “The fun part is when you have substance behind the things you are selling and some proof of what you are and ultimately what you think you can be.”