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2023 Positional Preview – Secondary

Part 8 of the 2023 Positional Preview wraps up the series with the cornerbacks and safeties under the guise of Jay Valai and Brandon Hall. Could true freshmen be the difference this year?
Between Peyton Bowen and Jasiah Wagoner, the future of the DB room is now. Nathan J. Fish/The Oklahoman

The Room

Projected Depth Chart

POSITIONSTARTER2ND STRING3RD STRINGDEPTHREDSHIRT
CBWoodi WashingtonKendal DolbyMakari VickersJayden Rowe
FSBilly BowmanPeyton BowenErik McCarty
SSReggie PearsonKey LawrenceRobert Spears-JenningsDaeh McCullough
CBGentry Williams -OR-Jasiah WagonerJacobe Johnson -OR-Kani Walker
NBKendal DolbyMakari Vickers
Billy Bowman looks to lead the safeties while Woodi Washington handles the corners. Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman

2022 Recap

2022 was a bit of a mixed bag for both defensive back groups. While the defensive tackles may have been the most consistent group by the end of the season, the safeties and corners had their ups and downs but were still slightly better than the linebackers and defensive lines as a whole. We’ve already hit several times in this series on the roster that Brent Venables and crew inherited. And the narrative isn’t that much different for Jay Valai (cornerbacks) and Brandon Hall (safeties).

Justin Broiles, who had a somewhat decent 2021, looked to be the leader in the room with almost 1,450 career snaps. Woodi Washington returned to lead the cornerback room, and Billy Bowman entered his third year in Norman with more than 10 starts under his belt. Key Lawrence, the former Tennessee transfer, was entering his second year in Norman after an up-and-down 2021. DJ Graham was ready to shake off a poor Alamo Bowl and capture the starting role across from Woodi, and Jaden Davis was hoping for a career resurrection after looking somewhat competent as a true freshman in 2019 and steadily slipping since. To provide depth and competition, the staff brought in Kani Walker, CJ Coldon, Jr., and Trey Morrison in the transfer portal, as well as a couple of promising high school recruits in Gentry Williams, Jayden Rowe, and Robert Spears-Jennings.

But there were times in the season when these units really struggled, especially Broiles and Lawrence. The system asked a lot more out of safeties than the previous, and late reactions and poor angles were the theme all year for the safeties. Even Billy Bowman struggled at times, although his play down the stretch brings a lot of promise for 2023. At corner, Graham eventually fell out of the starting lineup, ending up with the wide receivers by season’s end. Jaden Davis couldn’t find consistency, Walker couldn’t find much playing time, and Gentry Williams appeared in even less plays. At least Williams and Spears-Jennings flashed when they did get some run.

Overall, it was a roller coaster of a season out of all the defensive backs. Besides a few snaps from Williams and RSJ, the overall lack of speed in the room was very apparent, and perhaps one of the main downfalls of the group in 2022.

True freshman Jasiah Wagoner isn’t just looking to play. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

New Names & the Rest of the Room

The roster turnover this offseason was perhaps most apparent at both defensive back spots. Damond Harmon, Joshua Eaton, Kendall Dennis, Jaden Davis, and Jamarrien Burt entered the transfer portal after struggling to find footing under the new staff. CJ Coldon, Jr., Trey Morrison, and Justin Broiles expired eligibility. And DJ Graham switched to receiver mid-season. It was a cleansing of sorts for Jay Valai and Brandon Hall, giving them room for an influx of talent from a defensive back class that OU hasn’t seen in a long time.

Peyton Bowen, as the lone five-star of the group, leads us off at safety. Bowen, along with high school teammate, friend, and now college teammate Jackson Arnold, led Denton Guyer to back-to-back deep playoff runs in Texas 6A ball, including a state final appearance. Bowen was responsible for over 200 tackles and 12 interceptions on his way to multiple all-district teams and District MVP his senior season. The Under Armour All-American also starred on special teams for Guyer, returning 4 punts for touchdowns in his career. Bowen has been getting rave reviews from the staff, both publicly and privately, that rivals only a select few freshmen in recent OU history. While Bowen likely won’t start a game in 2023, barring injury, he will play, and play a lot – backing up both safety spots and potentially getting some run at Cheetah.

In-state star Erik McCarty joins Bowen at safety. The eastern Oklahoma product starred on both sides of the ball for McAlester, primarily at running back and safety. A severe knee injury ended his senior season early (McCarty has been rehabbing in Norman since he enrolled in January), but McCarty still managed to rush for nearly 5,000 yards (8.9 ypc) and 89 touchdowns over his career, adding 750 receiving yards and 8 more touchdowns through the air for good measure. On defense, McCarty compiled 350 tackles, 8 interceptions, and 4 fumble recoveries. Oh, and he blocked 7 punts and 3 field goals. Think McCarthy knows how to play football? A redshirt season is likely as he recovers, but he will find the field eventually.

And after the overall lackluster play from the safeties last year, a group that really struggled in rush defense, coach Hall went out and nabbed safety transfer Reggie Pearson, Jr. from Texas Tech before he could commit to Notre Dame. The former Detroit product has played at both Wisconsin and Texas Tech, showcasing his hard-hitting style in the box at both stops. Pearson’s game is exactly what the safeties needed, a physical player that plays downhill and is a sound tackler. From Day 1, Pearson threatened Lawrence’s starting spot, and so far, it looks like Reggie has won that battle. A combination of Pearson, Bowen, and Bowman could be a three-headed monster on the back end of the defense.

At corner, let’s start with Washington State high school product Jasiah Wagoner. Not because he was a five-star recruit, or a star transfer. But Wagoner may have been the staff’s best evaluation during the 2023 cycle, as the (now clearly) severely underrated corner (#317 overall, #32 CB in the Composite) has bullied his way into the starting lineup just eight months after arriving on campus as an early enrollee. And it’s that bully mentality that has gotten the somewhat undersized corner (5’11”, 170 pounds) from Spanaway Lake into this position. Wagoner is quick, wiry, and aggressive. Look for him to rotate heavily with the speedy Gentry Williams early as those two battle – hopefully all season – for the starting spot opposite Woodi.

Joining Wagoner at corner in the class of 2023 were Under Armour All-Americans Jacobe Johnson of Mustang and Makari Vickers, hailing from Monroe Day in Tallahassee. OU has recruited a decent handful of Top 100 type cornerbacks in the last decade, including Gentry Williams, Brendan Radley-Hiles, Justin Broiles, Tre Brown, and Jordan Parker. But none of them compete with Johnson and Vickers when it comes to the schools that OU beat out for their signatures. It’s rare for OU to beat out Alabama for a defensive back. In fact, it’s never really happened since Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa. And it happened twice in one year.

One look at Vickers and you know immediately he is nothing like the corners OU fans are accustomed to. A legit 6’1″ and 200 pounds, Vickers looked SEC ready the day he stepped on campus. And he is now pushing for playing time. Johnson is a similar story, albeit for different reasons. His rangy 6’3″ frame presents a completely different dynamic in the room, and his athleticism (was a four-star basketball recruit) has wowed the coaches. Expect both to play enough this fall to avoid a redshirt.

Adding to the mix is JUCO transfer Kendal Dolby, recruited as a safety at Northeastern Oklahoma but expected to line up outside at cornerback and possibly nickelback in sub-packages. Dolby has had an up and down camp, sometimes looking like a starter but failing to hold on to any lead. As Dolby finds more consistency, look for even more competition with Woodi and Makari Vickers opposite Wagoner and Williams.

A handful of returning corners looking to push for more time this year – Kani Walker and Jayden Rowe – have some snaps under their belt, but the open competition behind Woodi Washington means the door is open for them to step in if they want it. Robert Spears-Jennings will look to get back into the mix at safety when he’s 100% soon. But they all have some talented freshmen to worry about.

Gentry Williams is laser-focused on a breakout season. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

2023 Projection

Consistency seems to be a theme with the defensive groups, and it rings just as true for the entire defensive back grouping. There was some good last year to build on, but some of the inconsistencies cannot hold over to this season.

The good news? This group is much more athletic than last year. The speed should be apparent from the first snap, with guys like Gentry Williams, Jasiah Wagoner, and Peyton Bowen taking the place of Justin Broiles, Jaden Davis, Trey Morrison, and CJ Coldon, Jr. Nothing against the former Sooners, but it’s a collective instant upgrade. And Reggie Pearson presents the perfect strongside safety for this scheme, a downfield cannon and sure tackler. The staff did a good job identifying the weaknesses and addressing them in one offseason.

All of these changes give the staff more depth to work with, helping keep the groups fresh throughout each game and down the season stretch. In 2022, Woodi Washington played an astounding 889 snaps out of a possible 1,070 plays. While Washington was the best cover corner on the roster last year, that many snaps is not sustainable. Coldon and Davis split most of the snaps on the other side of the field while Woodi locked down his side. But this year, the staff can lean on as many as six or seven corners, between Woodi and Gentry Williams and newcomers Wagoner, Vickers, Johnson, and Dolby. At various times in camp, we have reported that Kani Walker and Jayden Rowe have looked good too. Look for this group to sort itself out in the first couple of non-conference games and be ready for conference play.

Safety play should be much stronger too. Instead of Broiles and Key Lawrence, OU can turn to Pearson and Bowen, an automatic upgrade before the season even starts. The run support from the back end should improve dramatically, and coverage from Bowman and Bowen should provide a solid safety net in the passing game. It might feel like we are picking on Broiles, and to some extent Lawrence, in this article, but the level of play from them in 2022 was simply not good enough. For as good of teammates as Broiles was and Lawrence is, they simply weren’t effective on the field. The ceiling under guys like Pearson and Bowen, even as a true freshman, is much, much higher.

Woodi Washington returns for one more shot against Texas. Andrew Dieb/USA TODAY Sports

Projected Stats

Safety play is big in this scheme, and we expect a lot of contribution from Billy Bowman, Reggie Pearson, and Peyton Bowen this year in both coverage and the run game. At corner, it wouldn’t be a shock to see four or more guys get a pick with how many snaps each could play.

As far as grading goes, Billy Bowman is the only returning safety that received a coverage grade of at least 80.0 from PFF (86.8), and Woodi Washington is the only corner that received a coverage grade ov at least 70.0 (74.2). And Woodi is the only returning defensive back with at least a 70.0 grade in rush defense. As mentioned earlier, PFF may have its flaws, but season long trends from their data can be helpful.

At the conclusion of 2023, it will be hard to imagine such poor grades from this group. Reggie Pearson alone should lift the rush defense, and the influx of speed from Williams, Wagoner, and Bowen and the size from Vickers and Johnson, when they do get some snaps, should narrow throwing windows sideline to sideline.

Turnovers should see a big boost under this group too. With those narrow passing windows, more than 12 interceptions from defensive backs (the total from 2022) should be all but guaranteed. And expect a spike in forced fumbles too after forcing only 4 (and only 6 total from this defense) in 2022, thanks to some sound tackling from Reggie Pearson and the ball skills of Peyton Bowen. One should expect that Billy Bowman will improve on his somewhat surprising 25.9% missed tackles metric, which should result in more disruption as well.

PLAYERTCKLINTPBUFFRUNPASS
Woodi Washington363527379
Jasiah Wagoner283417080
Gentry Williams252306977
Kendal Dolby211117174
Makari Vickers170117070
Jacobe Johnson121206872
PLAYERTCKLINTPBUFFRUNPASS
Billy Bowman614517288
Reggie Pearson541338173
Peyton Bowen462327677
Key Lawrence240216871
Robert Spears-Jennings191207070

Defensive Backs Room Grades

2022 Grade: C-
Offseason Grade: A-
2023 Projected Grade: B+

Another defensive group, another bad 2022. Similar to the defensive line and linebackers, the defensive backs saw a big influx on talent in both the portal and high school class, enough to make a significant impact on the room in 2023. And just like those groups, we’re looking at a B/B+ season in 2023. Which in a vacuum might seem like a bad thing, but after the struggles in 2022, consistency is all this group should be looking for, and consistency is what you should expect out of this mix of veterans and rookies.

Jay Valai and Brandon Hall have their work cut out for them getting a portal addition in Reggie Pearson and some true freshmen up to speed with the defense, but we’ve been hearing good things leading up to Saturday to feel like this group is ready. It helps when you sign one of the best defensive back classes in recent memory, with guys like Peyton Bowen, Jasiah Wagoner, Makari Vickers, and Jacobe Johnson ready to make an early impact. The influx is a perfect compliment to the veterans in the group like Woodi Washington and Billy Bowman, a 5th year senior looking to enhance his draft stock, and a true junior with the potential to leave early with a good year, respectively.

In fact, B+ might be the floor for this group.

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