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2023 Positional Preview – Defensive Line

Part 7 of the 2023 Positional Preview heads to the homes of Miguel Chavis and Todd Bates to look at their transformed 3-deep full of transfers and a new five-star.
The Sooners defensive line should be stout against the run in 2023. Audrey Quan/OU Daily

The Room

Projected Depth Chart

DERondell BothroydEthan DownsReggie GrimesTaylor Wein
DTJordan Kelley ORJonah LauluGracen HaltonDavon SearsAshton Sanders
NGDa’Jon Terry ORIsaiah CoeKelvin Gilliam, Jr.Phil PaeaMarkus Strong
DER. Mason ThomasTrace FordPJ AdebaworeMarcus Stripling
Junior Ethan Downs returns 10 pounds lighter, hoping to elevate his game from the 2022 version. Ty Russell/Sooner Sports

2022 Recap

It’ll be hard to sum this up any better than the recap for the linebackers. They did the best they could with what they had. Well, maybe. First year position coach Miguel Chavis took over a room with some, but limited, experience, and frankly not a lot of talent. The accomplished Todd Bates, once speculated as the defensive coordinator apparent at Clemson, took over a defensive tackle group that had much more experience, but also lacked in top-end talent.

Inside, Jalen Redmond, Isaiah Coe, Jordan Kelley, Josh Ellison, and Kelvin Gilliam, Jr. were joined by Tulane transfer Jeffery Johnson and incoming freshman Gracen Halton. This group was maybe the most experienced group inherited by the new staff, between Johnson (2,312 career snaps), Redmond (900), Ellison (439), Kelley (351), and Coe (187), and Gilliam (39). This group struggled early, but really started to come on during the back half of the season. While it wasn’t taking over games, the group was steady in its play and showed improvement under Bates.

At defensive end, sophomore Ethan Downs and junior Reggie Grimes entered the season as the presumed starters, a spot that neither gave up while healthy in 2022. But neither really stood out on tape, and both struggled at times. The depth behind them didn’t see much of a growth as the season progressed outside of R Mason Thomas. Thomas earned playing time as a true freshman for his burst off the line, but he needed a good 20 pounds extra on his frame to be more of a factor. Hawaii transfer Jonah Laulu saw steady snaps throughout the season spelling Downs and Grimes. While Laulu’s size and length were helpful in run defense, his burst limited his upside as a pass rusher. Which was a theme to 2022.

All in all, the defensive line contributed just 23.0 sacks in 2022, and only 12.0 of those came from defensive ends. This unit simply could not get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, limiting its overall impact on the ability of the defense to play aggressive. Point blank – it was not good enough.

Da’Jon Terry brings his SEC-sized presence to the interior linemen group. Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

New Names & the Rest of the Room

Downs, Grimes, Coe, Kelley, Laulu, Thomas, and Gilliam all return, but that doesn’t mean they are lining up for more snaps than last season. Chavis and Bates did not – and really could not – stand pat with the group they had and added several new faces from high school and the portal.

Any time you add a five-star in recruiting, you must lead off with said five-star. PJ Adebawore joined the Sooners in January, and instantly transformed the room. The 6’4″ product of Kansas City sports a massive wingspan, a quick jump, and an NFL future. It’s been a long time since Oklahoma has recruited a defensive end like Adebawore. The closest would probably be RJ Washington in 2011. But even back into Bob’s early seasons, no recruit stepped on campus with the physical makeup and abilities of Adebawore. The past few decades, his types were wearing the power G, the script A, or buckeyes on their helmets on their way to getting drafted top 10. But Adebawore will be wearing the interlocked OU, and has instantly transformed the trajectory of the defensive end position under Brent Venables. This is the guy that the David Stones and Nigel Smiths of the recruiting world want to play with. Expect PJ to play early and play often in 2023.

The lone other member of the defensive end recruiting class is Brentwood, Tennessee’s Taylor Wein – not to be confused with Bethany’s Taylor Heim at LB/S. Like Heim, Wein needs a year to physically mature under Jerry Schmidt, but has the tools to become a solid contributor in this defense for years to come. Wein’s long frame projects as a SDE in this system, and with some added weight (242 on the roster currently) it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start at some point in his career.

Two other future contributors on the defensive line in the 2023 class, Ashton Sanders and Markus Strong, are also expected to redshirt this season. Sanders, from California, and Strong, from Florida, are almost as different as their distance apart as high schoolers. Sanders projects as a quick inside 3T, transforming his body from an overweight 330ish pounds as a junior in high school down to a svelte 285 pounds entering the season. Strong is overcoming a knee injury that prevented him from playing his senior year, which drastically affected his recruiting profile and ranking. But the big-framed Floridian has a lot of potential, and Todd Bates is hoping he found a diamond in the rough. Both could use some more time working with Schmitty, but it’s possible Sanders flashes enough talent to earn some snaps.

Expected to make an immediate impact, and perhaps even more immediate than PJ Adebawore, are the transfers in the room. Rondell Bothroyd heads to Norman from Wake Forest for his 5th and last year of eligibility, while Trace Ford makes a short trip down I-35 from Stillwater for his 4th season. Joining along side them inside are Da’Jon Terry, transferring from Tennessee, Davon Sears from Texas State, Jacob Lacey from Notre Dame, and Phil Paea from Utah State.

Bothroyd was a multi-year starter and team captain at Wake Forest, where he amassed 136 tackles, 31.0 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles over 32 career appearances for the Demon Deacons. His best season came in 2021, when he had 15.5 TFL and a career high 8.0 sacks. Bothroyd is expected to take the starting SDE position and run with it. Check out Caleb Cumming’s breakdown of Bothroyd’s game on our YouTube channel here.

Ford burst onto the scene in 2019, flashing his speed from the EDGE for the Cowboys on his way to 4.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks as a true freshman. But Ford only managed 7.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks over the rest of this last 3 seasons in Stillwater, battling injuries both minor and major. Ford sat out all of 2021 rehabbing knee surgery, and looked timid in 9 appearances in 2022 where he had a career low 8 tackles and 1.0 sack. Ford heads to Norman looking for a fresh start in a defense that is going to highlight Ford’s speed as a situational pass rusher.

Da’Jon Terry is another veteran newcomer entering his 5th year on a college campus. The 6’4″, 320 pound run stuffer is pushing for the starter role at the NG position. Terry appeared in 9 games for Kansas over his first two seasons before heading to Knoxville and playing in 23 games over the past two season for the Volunteers. Terry has 51 career tackles with 8.0 TFL and 5.0 sacks, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. On film, Terry is stout at the point of attack and has good tape against the best teams in the country, including Georgia and Alabama.

Davon Sears heads to Norman from Texas State where he played sparingly. A late bloomer out of Michigan, Sears has found his way to Power 5 ball from JUCO to San Marcos to Norman. A project with athleticism, Sears has two more seasons of eligibility and was worth a flier on. Jacob Lacey was the first transfer of the 2023 offseason, heading to Norman from South Bend for a fresh start after contributing for the Fighting Irish but struggling to break into a starting role. And Phil Paea becomes the ultimate insurance policy at NG, another guy who has struggled with injuries in his career that brought him from Ann Arbor to Utah State before heading to play for the Sooners.

One other change to note – Jonah Laulu and his massive frame has moved inside, and by all reports throughout the offseason, the former Hawaii Warrior has transformed his makeup to a stout 295 pounds. Laulu is expected to either start or find himself heavily in the rotation at 3T and 4i when they go with 30 front looks.

Second year player R Mason Thomas has added some much-needed mass. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

2023 Projection

If there’s one thing that will improve year-over-year, it’s going to be the pass rush. Reggie Grimes and Ethan Downs won’t magically become sack magicians (although a leaner Downs might help some). But the influx of speed on the edge and size inside should do wonders.

Da’Jon Terry provides another stout defender in that Nose spot, providing experienced depth alongside Isaiah Coe, someone who really started to look solid towards the end of 2022. And Kelvin Gilliam, Jr. might only have one season left to prove that he can be an option to lean on in 2024. Phil Paea presents a “break glass in case of emergency” insurance plan.

At the 3-technique, the group might be even deeper. 5th year man Jordan Kelley leads a group of Jonah Laulu, Jacob Lacey, Davon Sears, and Gracen Halton, a group that is expected to heavily rotate based on looks and hot hand. Gracen Halton and Jonah Laulu have both had fantastic offseasons physically, both adding over 20 pounds to help beef up the interior while providing quickness off the ball. Sears could be the wildcard in this room; he has all the tools to be a good 3T, but has hardly played any consistent football in several years, and definitely not at this level.

If the defensive line group can play with any semblance of consistency, it will go a long way to free up the edge rushers, which will likely look nothing like last year.

Rondell Bothroyd, Trace Ford, PJ Adebawore, and a beefed up R Mason Thomas should all factor heavily in the pass rush department. Bothroyd is obviously the most experienced (and productive) of the group, and he should provide baseline run stopping ability to go along with his plus pass rush skills. Not the most physically impressive looking end out there, Bothroyd has a knack for making this happen with his disruption and stable of subtle pass rush moves. He is an instant improvement over any end that saw snaps in 2022. Trace Ford has done it at this level, looking even great at times, but injuries have severely slowed his career trajectory. The staff has a plan for this, hoping to use Ford in obvious pass rushing situations as this defense looks to improve at closing out games. Adebawore and Thomas will only help in that, as a steady rotation early in games should keep this stable of rushers fresh.

Even though the defensive line room didn’t go out and add an incoming All-American like Florida State last season with Jared Verse, the portal editions are more than talented enough to help elevate the look of this whole defense. Add a bonafide five-star and 20 pounds to Thomas, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Reggie Grimes on the sidelines all season.

True freshman PJ Adebawore will play early, and likely often. Audrey Quan/OU Daily

Projected Stats

Last season, OU rotated defensive tackles fairly often, with the top four snap earners playing 430, 399, 350, and 347 snaps. Gilliam added another 99, and Gracen Halton got in on 74 plays as a true freshman. With the depth in play in this room in 2023, and no real separation from starter to even 3rd on the depth chart in some cases, look for an even more balanced snap count chart in 2023. Again, consistency is key here inside to help open up the pass rush from the outside, and free up the second level. Can someone like Laulu or Halton really assert themselves at 3T? Will Terry’s size eventually get him more snaps than Coe? There are a lot of unknowns, but the floor seems relatively stable.

Jordan Kelley318.03.06.07874
Da’Jon Terry266.52.04.08071
Jonah Laulu257.53.57.07677
Gracen Halton215.53.510.07174
Isaiah Coe204.51.53.07068
Davon Sears122.50.52.06572

Defensive end should be a somewhat similar story, with five more than capable bodies and veterans Reggie Grimes and Marcus Stripling holding down the fort if the unspeakable happens.

We expect Bothroyd to lead the room in snaps, with Ethan Downs getting a lot of looks in run sets and 30 fronts. On the weakside, R Mason Thomas stands to start, but PJ Adebawore and Trace Ford will get their snaps. Ideally, the second halves of conference games should be where these three shine. It’s a dynamic that was completely missing from the defense in 2022. And with guys in the second level like Dasan McCullough adding to the pass rush, there should be a lot of exotic looks that will surely lead to production in the stat sheet.

Rondell Bothroyd4116.59.029.07592
Ethan Downs3211.03.511.08071
R Mason Thomas249.55.519.07081
PJ Adebawore198.54.513.06879
Trace Ford169.54.016.07480

Is it crazy to imagine the defensive line getting 39.5 sacks one year after putting up just 23.0? Maybe. Clemson’s defensive line put up 40.0 in 2021, so that kind of distribution is possible in this defense. And once more, consistency across the entire front will be key to seeing production like this.

Miguel Chavis is looking for better play out of his defensive ends in 2023. The Oklahoman

Defensive Line Grades

2022 Grade: D
Offseason Grade: A
2023 Projected Grade: B+

Much like the linebackers, the defensive line group has a chance of turning it around rather quickly. And the grades for both groups track similarly. Linebackers just slightly edged out the defensive line, D+ to D. Simply put – both were awful. Dreadful, really. One of the worst overall seasons for an Oklahoma defense in decades. And as always, and will continue in the SEC starting next season – it starts up front. And the unit last season was not up to the task. But in the offseason, Miguel Chavis, Todd Bates, and Brent Venables went to work. Five-star PJ Adebawore joins the room ready to contribute day one. Adding a five-star alone gets you to an A- offseason. But they threw in three Power 5 starters in Rondell Bothroyd of Wake Forest, Da’Jon Terry of Tennessee, and Trace Ford of Oklahoma State, too. And Notre Dame transfer Jacob Lacey, who is healthy and practicing, has playing experience. Both Bothroyd and Ford bring unique skillsets, both can rush the passer, and both are true leaders, something the entire defense lacked a season ago. Lacey and Terry have also shown their leadership qualities since arriving to campus.

And just as the linebackers, another year in the system (and under Schmitty) for guys like Jordan Kelley, Isaiah Coe, and Ethan Downs can go a long way in improving the play on the field. Mix in a few more instant impact transfers and your floor raises considerably.

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