Before the 2018 season, the toughest questions for the Oklahoma Sooners focused on a defense that was frequently exposed a year ago.
With Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield off to the NFL, OU would no longer have an all-time great at quarterback to lean on in shootouts. The thinking went that if the Sooners couldn’t get a better showing from the D this season, they would end up on the losing end of more of the scoring fests that went their way in ‘17.
Through the first four games of the 2018 season, the defense is sending mixed signals as to its improvement. Some of the lapses that plagued the team last year have cropped back up. On the other hand, OU has taken steps forward in other key areas, helping lead the Sooners to a 4-0 start to the season.
With four games now in the books, here are four important takeaways about the play of Oklahoma's defense in 2018.
1. The play of the safeties remains a major concern
A year ago, OU’s safeties created all manner of headaches for the team. It started with the dismissal of projected starter Will Sunderland in the summer. It continued throughout the season as injuries forced defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks to fiddle with his personnel groupings on an almost weekly basis. Blown coverage assignments and missed tackles also came fairly regularly.
The safety situation this year looks slightly less dire, but it’s still giving Sooner Nation heartburn. Kahlil Haughton, a part-time starter in 2017, hasn’t shown any signs that he is a better player this year. He has been up and down in coverage, with a tendency to show up late against vertical routes when playing deep. OU also would benefit from Haughton providing more of a physical presence in run support.
Meanwhile, Brendan Radley-Hiles hasn’t had quite the impact that was expected from a 5-star freshman. The touted recruit covers well and has come close to multiple interceptions this season. However, his tackling technique needs work, which has prevented him from maximizing his effect on the defense in his first month. The hope is that will come sooner than later.
2. Mark Jackson is exceeding expectations
The JACK linebacker position wasn’t creating much buzz during OU’s preseason camp. Blue-chip recruit Jalen Redmond had turned some heads during spring football as an early enrollee, but a blood-clotting issue in the summer sidelined him for the year. Addison Gumbs became the presumed front-runner for the job during August, but a knee injury on the eve of the first game ended his season – and precipitated the end of his time at OU.
That left Jackson as the starter by default. He has taken advantage of the opportunity, racking up 33 tackles so far, good for third on the team. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops appears comfortable letting Jackson drop in coverage on zone blitzes in passing situations, and Jackson is holding up well against the run.
Of course, it would help if he could step up his game in one particular area...
3. OU can’t pressure quarterbacks without blitzing
Jackson’s predecessor at JACK, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, left a major void in the Sooners’ defense as a pass rusher when he graduated. No one has really filled that hole so far this season.
The reality is that unless Stoops is bringing the heat with blitzes from inside linebackers Curtis Bolton and Kenneth Murray, the pass rush just hasn’t been there this season. On the plus side, necessity has forced Stoops to implement some more creative pressure packages this year that utilize stunts on the defensive line and defensive backs attacking from unexpected angles.
OU could really use either Jackson or defensive end Kenneth Mann causing more disruption on the defensive line. A QB like West Virginia’s Will Grier will probably roast a defense that relies too heavily on the blitz.
4. Kenneth Murray made the leap
While starting at MIKE linebacker as a true freshman last season, Murray showed worlds of promise on the interior at a position he had never played before. His mistakes frequently overshadowed his flashes of brilliance, though.
Those busted assignments are coming far less often so far this season. His growth culminated in a performance against Army that saw the sophomore notch a school-record 28 tackles. Murray also has tallied two sacks to lead the team through the first four contests. While it doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, Murray also is OU’s most physical defender.
Murray has the all-around game required of inside linebackers in a wide-open league like the Big 12. His performance so far has confirmed that he will have to play a key role in getting the defense where it needs to be if the Sooners want to win another conference championship.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.