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Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Could OU's DL woes change in 2013?

By Brandon Chatmon

Chuka Ndulue
Chuka Ndulue will be Oklahoma's lone returning starter on the defensive line from a group that underachieved statistically in the 2012 season.
As critics took aim at Oklahoma’s defensive line this season, head coach Bob Stoops was unyielding in his defense of his players, often pointing to the experience that five senior rotation players bring to the table. Stoops said on more than one occasion that his defensive line was playing well.

The numbers beg to differ.

OU ranked No. 112 nationally in tackles for loss (4.23 per game), No. 70 in sacks (1.85 per game), No. 50 in scoring defense (25.46 points per game) and No. 100 in turnovers gained (16). While it’s true the Sooners defensive line wasn’t required to be disruptive in defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' system, a general lack of penetration played a key role in those final numbers.

The bad news? Things could be even worse in 2013.

The experience factor, which Bob Stoops consistently pointed to this fall, will be gone next fall. Sophomore defensive end Chuka Ndulue is the lone returning starter, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jordan Phillips saw his role grow at the end of the season and sophomore defensive end Geneo Grissom played significant snaps in the final few games. Those three players bring the lone returning experience, with Ndulue and Phillips bringing the lone significant experience. Ndulue brings experience, production and upside to the table as OU’s leading sacker in 2012 with five. Yet he’s not the relentlessly disruptive force that Frank Alexander or Ronnell Lewis were in 2011. That doesn’t mean he can’t develop into that type of impact player. Regardless, he stands as a glimmer of hope on the 2013 defensive line.

Grissom is one of the most athletic players on the roster and, after bouncing back and forth between tight end and defensive end in the past year, he could benefit greatly from honing his skills at defensive end. As a player who has changed positions during his career, Rashod Favors, a former linebacker, is similar to Grissom and has shown flashes as a pass-rusher.

In the interior, Phillips seems have the highest upside of the defensive tackles on the roster. Teammates along the offensive line speak highly of Phillips' athleticism and raw talent. Yet, that will mean nothing if he cannot transform his physical ability into production.

OU’s hope for success upfront largely hinges on some wild-cards. If multiple playmakers don’t emerge from a group that includes redshirting freshman defensive tackle Jordan Wade, defensive tackle signee Quincy Russell, sophomore defensive end Charles Tapper, sophomore defensive end Michael Onuoha and others, it will be a long 2013 campaign for OU’s defense.

Wade and Russell could be the most important of the group. Wade is one of the strongest players on the roster and Russell’s ability to provide an anchor in the middle is one of his fortes. The Sooners need at least one of them to make a major contribution. And if they both prove ready to be difference-makers, it would be the best-case scenario in Norman.

At defensive end, Tapper and Onuoha played themselves out of redshirt seasons and have shown unique traits that could help them become standouts on the defense. But they’ll have to prove it on the field first before you can pencil them in as contributors, let alone stars. And keep an eye on defensive end commitment Matt Dimon (Katy, Texas/Katy), who should bring a combination of intensity, effort and play-making ability to the defense.

While OU has several players along its defensive line who possess terrific upside, there’s no reason to think the Sooners' defensive line will improve in 2013 as the combination of inexperience and the expected learning curve could prove too much to overcome.

If Stoops expects the criticism of his defensive line to dissipate in 2013, they’ll have to prove it on the field first, thus making believers of us all.