NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma is five years removed from its last national championship game appearance. No one knows if the recruiting class it will bring in today will lead them back to that kind of stature.
However, one trend says the Sooners, and the rest of the Big 12 Conference, are losing ground.
Defensive linemen have long set good teams apart from great ones. OU’s best teams of the Bob Stoops era — with the possible exception of 2000 national championship team — held that distinction.
From 2000-2011, OU has had at least one all-Big 12 defensive lineman. Those 2003, 2004 and 2008 teams that reached the national championship game all included at least All-American defensive lineman — defensive tackle Tommie Harris (2003), defensive end Dan Cody (2004) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (2008).
All three were players within OU’s recruiting base. Cody (Ada) and McCoy (Oklahoma City) were right in the sweet spot. Harris was from Killeen, Texas, but OU battled Big 12 schools to get him.
More and more being the beast in the Big 12 isn’t carrying as much weight with highly sought prep defensive linemen.
In the class of 2013, there were seven defensive linemen rated as four-star recruits by both Rivals and ESPN in the Big 12 Conference’s regional footprint — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and West Virginia.
Southmoore’s D.J. Ward, who is already attending classes at OU, is the only one who elected to play in the Big 12. Lancaster, Texas, defensive end Daeshon Hall (Washington) and Houston Taylor defensive Torrodney Prevot (USC) decided the Pac-12 was for them. The rest chose to play in the SEC.
Four of them chose Texas A&M. Having an SEC school in Texas only makes the problem worse for Big 12 Conference.
ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill sees the Big 12 defensive line issues as a geographic problem.
“There may be various ways to explain it, but the core nucleus of premier players along the defensive front — whether it’s at tackle or end — is in the southeast region of this country. It’s in the six to seven states — the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama — they are concentrated there for whatever reason. And it’s very difficult to get those guys to come out of there,” he said.
“Am I saying there’s no defensive linemen in Texas or Oklahoma or Arizona or California? No, I am not saying that at all. But when your player pool at that position is tapered down and narrow, then your choices are going to be limited. When you do get one, if there’s not multiple to choose from the margin of error narrows because there weren’t multiple players to choose from.”
That problem is easy to see every April. The simple method for deciding which conferences are producing the most talent is wait for the NFL draft.
The raw numbers say it. The Big 12 only had three defensive linemen drafted last season. Two were Sooners with Frank Alexander going to the Carolina Panthers in the fourth round and Ronnell Lewis going to the Detroit Lions a few picks later. The only other Big 12 defensive lineman to be selected was Texas defensive tackle Kheeston Randall. It doesn’t look like the NFL is going to harvest many more than that this year.
Recruits give schools’ and conferences’ abilities to produce pro caliber players intense scrutiny. Each year OU and the Big 12 are not producing NFL quality defensive linemen, the less attractive it will be to recruits.
The Sooners will sign seven defensive linemen today. Matt Dimon (Katy, Texas) and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Houston Taylor) join Ward in the defensive end crop. Kerrick Hughes (Dallas Skyline), Matthew Romar (Port Arthur, Texas), Charles Walker (Garland, Texas) and junior college transfer Quincy Russell (Trinity Valley Community College) are the interior prospects.
All are at least three-star recruits with some earning four from one of the services. There is obvious potential there. All may not contribute in 2013, but OU lost five defensive linemen with starting experience from 2012. Defensive linemen, particularly tackles, were its biggest need.
If OU wants to compete and win national championships, dominant defensive linemen have to be part of the equation.
“You can say what you want, but that was the one common denominator between the last seven national champions and the team that lost,” Luginbill said. “They were better up front and they had more depth because they had more of them; that’s the challenge for the Big 12 and everyone else.”
Shinn is with Norman Transcript, a fellow CNHI News Service publication.