OU's defensive front exceeds expectations

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s defensive line was expected to be a major weakness for the Sooners this season. Everyone knew the defensive front could decide how well, or how poorly, OU’s defense performed in 2013.

Early indications point to the Sooners defensive line being the strength of the entire defense. OU’s defensive line has been extremely disruptive and its ability to consistently get into the offensive backfield has been clear. Without question, the D-line is, at least thus far, proving doubters wrong.

“We had an idea what we could do, the potential we had and I think that’s why we had a chip on our shoulder,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said. “We wanted to prove everyone wrong that had the wrong expectations of us.”

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips has been dominant at times, finally matching the hype with on-field production after teammates had raved about his athletic ability during his first two years in Norman. The sophomore has just three tackles and one quarterback hurry in two games, but his impact has been far greater than those numbers indicate. A penetrating force in the defensive interior can transform a defense and Phillips is showing signs he could develop into that type of difference maker.

“Jordan Phillips was very disruptive for the most part on Saturday,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “[We’re] getting him to understand if we can be good over the nose like that, that creates a lot of problems for the offense.”

While it starts in the middle, the Sooners have been just as good on the perimeter. Sophomore defensive end Charles Tapper could easily be considered the Sooners’ most improved player as he’s shown an ability to get consistent penetration into the opponent’s backfield and Geneo Grissom, the other starter in OU’s three-man front, has been solid during his first season as a starter. No Sooners defensive lineman has recorded a sack yet, but their ability to occupy offensive linemen has allowed linebackers Eric Striker, Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon create pressure on various blitzes.

“They practice hard, their attitude is much better, I believe their effort is much better and they’re becoming very disciplined players,” Stoops said of the Sooners defensive front. “We’re encouraged by the first two weeks.”

The change has been apparent. The 2013 Sooners defensive front looks quicker, faster and more aggressive than the 2012 version. The defensive scheme changes, a new defensive coach in Jerry Montgomery and better chemistry have each played a role in the increased impact from OU’s defensive line.

“I feel like this is one of the closest defensive lines I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here,” Grissom said.

But let’s not get carried away. The Sooners have played two games. The story, and destiny, of this defensive line has not been written yet. OU hasn’t faced a run-first, physical offense like it could see in the future against Notre Dame, Kansas State, Oklahoma State. Those games could expose OU’s three-man front if the Sooners don’t play physical and disruptive against a run-heavy offenses.

“Everything seems to be going in the right direction,” Stoops said. “It’s just been two games and we’re going to play physical teams.”

Even though the Sooners rank No. 4 nationally in points per game (3.5), No. 10 in passing yards per attempt (4.32) and No. 20 in total yards per game (276.5), even the players know it is way too early to pat themselves on the back.

“We still have a long way to go,” Grissom said. “We’re nowhere near where we could be, where we have to be. I’m excited to see what we can do this year.”

One thing is certain though. The upside for this Sooners defensive line appears high. And if they reach their potential, the sky could be the limit for OU’s defense as a whole.

”They’re starting to be playmakers for us,” Stoops said. “And that’s something we haven’t had in the past.”