- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is dreaming of a national title run that would make its Allstate Sugar Bowl destruction of Alabama an afterthought.
If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.
It’s hard to imagine the defensive line taking a step backward in 2014. In fact, the group could end up becoming one of the best defensive lines of Bob Stoops' tenure after entering the spring of 2013 as one of the biggest question marks on the roster.
“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”
Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.
“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.
“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”
The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.
The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.
“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”
At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.
“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”
Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”
Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.
“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”
9hBrandon Chatmon and Jake Trotter