By John Shinn
NORMAN — What does Oklahoma’s defensive line expect to reveal in Saturday’s spring game?
“Knock ’em back football,” defensive end Charles Tapper said, “we need to play on the other side of the ball and go make plays.”
It is the major alteration new defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery has been trying to make since spring practice began. The Sooner defense must force more negative plays — sacks and tackles for losses — in order to improve from last season.
The inability to make those plays were a defining characteristic of the Sooners’ defense in 2012. The unit averaged 4.23 tackles for loss a game. It defended an average of 69.6 plays a game. One out of 16 plays going for a loss doesn’t come close to cutting it in an explosive offensive league like the Big 12. Defenses must be able force third-and-longs to have any chance of forcing punts.
It starts with the play of the defensive line.
OU’s group was missing a lot more than a slogan last season. One change has gone beyond cosmetic. They’ve switched from a two-gap defense to a one-gap. For defensive linemen, it means more freedom to attack. Instead of catching blocks and trying to hold a position, they’re allowed to get up field and try to force negative plays.
“Now we're attack, attack, attack,” said Chuka Ndulue, who is making the move from defensive end to tackle this spring. “A lot of my teammates in the d-line will benefit from that a lot. We can control the gap.”
However, Montgomery insists this change isn’t simply a matter of turning the defensive line loose to do whatever they feel like doing. Defenses are every bit as complicated as offenses are — perhaps more. For everything to work, 11 players have to perform 11 separate jobs. When the parts are cohesive, it works. Everything falls apart when one part doesn’t work.
“Everyone has a job. If I’m gonna go make a play and it’s not my job to go make that play and that ball cuts back in my gap, guess who’s in trouble? Guess who gets blamed for not coaching his guys?” Montgomery said.
How much is learned when the Sooners scrimmage at 2 p.m. Saturday at Owen Field is anyone’s guess. It will be game-like conditions, but OU’s coaching staff, traditionally, doesn’t like to show much for opposing coaches to digest over the summer.
However, the defensive line needs to show improvement. Montgomery and his players have had no problem describing what that should look like.
“We want to knock the line of scrimmage back, we want to play blocks and we want to restrict blocks. It’s a grown man’s game; it’s a violent game,” Montgomery said. “They have to learn to play with their face and their hands. Until they do that, it’s going to be physical practices out there. It’s a grown-man’s game. With the way people are spreading you out, you’re short in the box. You have to be physical up front.”