OU football: Sooners' secondary starting to fit the mold Alex Grinch has long desired
NORMAN — OU’s secondary took a big leap forward in 2020.
That’s easy to see just from the stat sheet.
After the Sooners’ defensive backs had just five interceptions in 14 games the year before, the group had 14 in 11 games in 2020.
Alex Grinch prioritized changing OU’s recruiting in the secondary and its started to pay off, and figures to continue to move forward.
The Oklahoman’s series of position looks at the Sooners continues with a look at OU’s defensive backs in 2021:
Season rewind: The low moment of the Sooners season came Oct. 3 in Ames, Iowa, where the secondary was outmatched against the Cyclones big group of tight ends and receivers.
After that 37-30 loss, safety Pat Fields expressed frustration.
“There really isn’t an alternative,” Fields said of the numerous penalties against the secondary. “You’re guarding guys who are 6-6, 6-5. If we’re not that that physical, it’s probably going to be a catch.”
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But the secondary morphed from there, with Tre Norwood’s role expanding greatly, Woodi Washington eventually moving into the starting lineup at cornerback and several other young players — Jeremiah Criddell and D.J. Graham among them — were on the field at critical times as well.
The Sooners racked up interceptions late in the season, with at least one in each of the final six games, averaging more than two per game over that stretch.
In the last two games, OU had three each — all but one of those by defensive backs.
Tre Brown came up big once again in the Big 12 Championship Game with an interception that sealed the win (plus two critical kick returns).
Norwood, who played a bit everywhere in the secondary before taking over at nickelback for Brendan Radley-Hiles late in the season, returned an interception for a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl blowout win over Florida.
Who’s in: *-Billy Bowman, Damond Harmon, Key Lawrence, Latrell McCutchin, Jordan Mukes (*-Bowman could play defensive back, wide receiver or running back).
Who’s out: Tre Brown, Tre Norwood, ^-Brendan Radley-Hiles (^-Radley-Hiles has entered the transfer portal, but Lincoln Riley has expressed hope Radley-Hiles returns).
The take: The secondary took a bit of a hit late when Brown — the only Sooners defender other than Isaiah Thomas to start every game to that point — opted out of the bowl game to begin his preparations for the NFL Draft and Norwood elected to head to the draft after another strong performance to end his Sooners career.
But the Sooners still appear to be in strong position in the secondary.
The emergence of Washington, Criddell and Graham was an encouraging sign. OU signed three defensive backs in the 2021 class — cornerbacks Latrell McCutchin and Damond Harmon and safety Jordan Mukes. The Sooners also signed Billy Bowman, who figures to have a role either in the secondary or on offense at receiver or running back (and on special teams). Then the Sooners picked up former four-star safety Key Lawrence, a Tennessee transfer. Add Justin Harrington, who likely would’ve played a key role in 2020 had he not missed the season due to injury, and the Sooners still should have plenty of depth on the back end as Grinch has added size and athleticism to the secondary.
Projected depth chart
D.J. Graham, Fr., 5-11, 200
Jaden Davis, So., 5-10, 185
Delarrin Turner-Yell, Jr., 5-10, 195
Key Lawrence, Fr., 6-2, 200
Pat Fields, Jr., 5-11, 204
Bryson Washington, Fr., 6-2, 197
Woodi Washington, RFr., 5-11, 192
Joshua Eaton, Fr., 6-2, 175
Jeremiah Criddell, RFr., 5-11, 197
Justin Harrington, Jr., 6-3, 215
Ryan Aber covers OU athletics, especially football. You can send your story ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ryaber. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.