On just the first day of spring practice, Oklahoma’s safeties have already seen a season’s worth of changes.
Entering the offseason, OU was looking to replace Tre Norwood, who declared for the NFL draft after starring at safety and cornerback last season. The Sooners also lost Robert Barnes, who transferred to Colorado after starting three games at safety in 2020.
Then former five-star nickelback Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles announced his transfer to Washington on March 16, ending his time as one of the more polarizing players in recent OU lore. And head coach Lincoln Riley told reporters March 18 that senior safety Pat Fields will miss most if not all of spring practice after undergoing a minor procedure. Fields, a 2020 team captain, started 10 games at free safety last season.
Fields is one of the more outspoken players on OU’s defense regarding football and racial justice. Radley-Hiles was also a respected voice in the locker room despite flak from fans. Norwood showed impressive perseverance in his return from an ACL injury, and Barnes brought experience and flexibility from playing linebacker and safety during his career.
Together, the four combined for 107 tackles and seven interceptions last season. Each loss carries significant weight as Oklahoma revs up offseason activities one year after it canceled its spring practices and game due to COVID-19.
“We’ve got several guys from the secondary a year ago that aren’t around anymore,” defensive coordinator and safeties coach Alex Grinch said in a Monday press conference. “What a great opportunity for the other guys that are here. I’m extremely excited.”
To fill the gaps on the field, Grinch has a number of players he’s hoping will take the next step. In particular, Grinch lauded redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Criddell, who played in 11 games and made one start in 2020, for making perhaps the biggest jump between years one and two of any player he’s coached.
Though Grinch noted redshirt junior Justin Harrington’s working out at cornerback some, the 6-foot-3 junior college transfer could play safety this season after missing 2020 with a knee injury. Harrington was the No. 1 junior college safety and the No. 4 cornerback, according to 247 Sports and ESPN, respectively, before arriving at OU.
“I compare him right now to kind of where Tre Norwood was a year ago, maybe this time where you had a player being a defensive back with a knee brace on,” Grinch said. “There’s a reason we don’t put those on those guys. But from an offseason standpoint, he’s done a tremendous job. You see the movement.”
Grinch is also testing out freshman Billy Bowman at nickelback after swiping him from outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons. The No. 2 athlete in the 2021 recruiting class played both receiver and defensive back in high school, but provides more value at safety than in Oklahoma’s crowded receiver room.
Additionally, the Sooners have added sophomore transfer Keshawn Lawrence and freshmen Jordan Mukes, Latrell McCutchin and Damond Harmon. Each has the potential and ability to play safety or cornerback.
Filling the gaps in leadership is less easily done than putting bodies on the field. Fortunately for Grinch, one safety is already taking the initiative to be more vocal.
Senior Dellarin Turner-Yell, who started eight of the 10 games he played in 2020 at strong safety, spoke to the media alongside Grinch on Monday. That was after he was charged with speaking to the other defensive backs at practice, a task Fields would usually fill.
“You guys know that Pat is a great leader for this team,” Turner-Yell said. “And guys tend to follow his lead, which is a great thing. … Guys are gonna have to step up to that leadership role. Even if they don’t want to, they still have to do it.”
Turner-Yell insisted, despite Fields’ absence, the Sooners communication in the secondary shouldn’t struggle. Grinch prides himself on cross training players for different roles and positions and Turner-Yell noted he, Criddell and redshirt senior Justin Broiles have the experience to move around.
As practice consumes the next five weeks leading up to Oklahoma’s April 24 spring game, safety is easily the Sooners’ most uncertain rotation. But it’s also a prime position for growth and the rise of contributors for the fall.
“I think it’ll be a unique opportunity,” Grinch said. “You say next man up, and in the spring it maybe puts me as a position coach in a different situation than the spring otherwise would be. … But now there’s other guys that’ve gotta rise to the occasion.”