NORMAN — New Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch says a change in attitude and culture is more important than any changes in schemes as the Sooners try to restructure an unit that ranked 101st in total defense and 130th in pass defense a year ago.
That's music to the ears of defensive end Ronnie Perkins, one of the few bright spots a year ago. Perkins was named an ESPN freshman All-American after having five quarterback sacks and 37 tackles a year ago.
"Everything is contagious with him,'' Perkins said. "You always like playing for a coach like that. It's a match made in heaven.''
Perkins said while Grinch "can't do everything for us, I feel like he's doing everything he's supposed to do for us to play above the level we should be.''
The first thing Grinch has done is make the Sooners physically tougher.
"He's telling us you have to be tough,'' Perkins said, "that no matter what is happening you have to show up and do our thing. The biggest difference is how he talks to us and how he approaches everything from the get go. He's brought a different approach to the team. He want us to go out there and play with the attitude the OU defense is usually known for. He is bringing back an attitude to the defensive side of the ball.''
Perkins said the transition from Ruffin McNeill to Grinch has been smooth.
"I had mixed feelings before I met him,'' he said. "I was both nervous and excited. I couldn't wait to meet him. I read about what type of guy he was and I was excited to see what he was like as a person. It wasn't a hard transition at all.''
Perkins has been motivated not only by Grinch's hiring, but past criticisms of the OU defense. Former coordinator Mike Stoops was fired after the Sooners' 48-45 loss to Texas on Oct. 6. That was one of six games in which the Sooners gave up 40 or more points.
"I love how people have talked down on us,'' he said. "It gives us another chance to prove people wrong and to show them we can do this and we can play well.''
Perkins is his own harshest critic.
"I always feel that I have to prove myself,'' he said "That's the type of dude that I am. As soon as I mess up, I'm on myself.''
A year ago was a learning lesson for him as he transitioned from the four-star recruit from St. Louis Lutheran North High School to one of college football's biggest stages.
"It was definitely harder coming from high school to college,'' he said. "I had to get bigger and stronger and more flexible, but I know I could definitely do it.''
Those hard knocks lessons could be paying off as a sophomore.
"I definitely feel more confident after coming back and watching film from my freshman year and stuff throughout the summer,'' he said. "I worked with the strength coaches on a lot of different stuff to improve myself and to become a better football player. I feel way stronger, quicker and faster and that's had a lot to do with me being more flexible than I was last year. It will help me have more sacks.''
Perkins' five sacks topped the Sooner defense a year ago. He has set a goal of having double digit sacks and more than 50 tackles.
"I've been through everything now,'' he said. "I know how to handle it and approach everything. It's made me work harder. I want to establish myself as one of the top players in this conference and in college football. The whole defense got some good momentum throughout the spring and I feel like that will carry over to fall camp. Hopefully, we can play way more consistent than we did last year. We all want to contribute to the team. The D-line needs to help lead the team. I want to be one of the leaders on the D-line.''
He has become more vocal as he begins to exert himself more.
"I got a year under my belt now,'' Perkins said. "I want to show the guys that I can be able to talk and speak up and be more vocal through the spring.''
Perkins tries to avoid trash talking — to an extent.
"I've really toned it down and let my play do my talking,'' he said. "But if you talk to me, I will talk back. I just try to keep my mouthpiece close and play.''
He remains close to his family. His mother's name (Nakeisha) is tatooed on his arm.
"I really do this for my mom,'' he said. "Whether I need some type of motivation, I look at this. It sucks being this far from home, but I think I have become better because of it. I doing doing something to make myself better and help them.''
He got his love for the sport from his father Ronald and older brother Ronnell, who is a safety at Missouri.
"I really fell in love with football watching my dad coach my older brother in Little League,'' Perkins said. "I have a good rivalry with my brother. Hopefully, we can play him one day,''
His favorite moment was avenging the loss to Texas for the Big 12 championship, 39-27. He had four tackles and one sack. Perkins learned about the OU-Texas rivalry in a hurry.
"We needed that one,'' he said. "It's crazy. The players who had already played in the game told us that you never know what it's like until you get on the field. Wow, it was so crazy.''
He has put the 45-34 loss to Alabama in the semifinals of the playoffs behind him.
"You got to leave the past in the past,'' he said. "Hopefully, we can get back in the playoff and get them for that game.''
Jalen Hurts, the Alabama backup quarterback in that game, is now on the Sooner sidelines as the probable OU starting QB.
"That's definitely crazy,'' he said. "You never know what's going to happen in a college uniform. It's good to see him in a Sooner uniform.''
The 2019 playoffs is in his focus now.
"My only goal is to become the best player that I can be and help this team win games and get past the first round of the playoffs.''