OU football: Lincoln Riley believes emphasis on turnovers taking deeper root

Former Oklahoma safety Kahlil Haughton (8) and sophomore safety Patrick Fields (10) warm up before the Sooners' game against UCLA in 2018. Fields has been praised for catching on to OU's new defensive system, which is designed to produce more turnovers. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

NORMAN — Oklahoma’s offense hasn’t just been prolific the past two seasons. It has been among the nation’s most responsible with the football.

The Sooners ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, among FBS teams in turnovers lost since the beginning of 2018.

With that in mind, OU coach Lincoln Riley gave a promising report after his defense’s first preseason practice running Alex Grinch’s turnover-emphasizing “Speed D.”

“From an offensive standpoint,” Riley said, “I can say it's been much more of a challenge for us in practice, just competitively, on the turnovers.”

For OU, that’s a good sign the defensive shift that took place in the offseason and began taking shape in the spring is right on schedule.

OU’s season opener Sept. 1 against Houston — which ranked 101st nationally in turnovers lost in 2018 and 63rd in 2019 — will provide a real gauge for the Sooners’ progress.

But Riley believes things are headed in the right direction.

“I like the way we practice,” he said. “I like the way we run to the ball. The intensity in coaching, the intensity in preparation right now is really good.”

Sophomore safety Patrick Fields was blunt about which player has had the biggest knack for takeaways in the team’s new defensive scheme.

“Pat Fields,” he said as a smile spread across his face.

Forcing turnovers has become something of a competition around OU facilities, and it will be an easy gateway to playing time in a system where results are easily calculated.

Fields played in just six games last season, but impressed Grinch enough in the spring that he catapulted to a leading candidate to start this fall.

“The thing I like most about coach Grinch’s methods is, he says nobody can hide in this defense,” Fields said. “Guys are graded out. You see productivity every single day. You can’t argue anything. All the opportunities are there … He doesn’t pick any favorites. He doesn’t care where you were before.”

OU’s 11 forced turnovers last season dropped them to 120th nationally in that category. Regardless of the changes with Grinch’s system — which uses a single-gap look up front and five defensive backs — OU would still have been looking to force more turnovers in 2019.

The thought of its defense putting the game back into the hands of the offense, rather than the other way around, is an enticing thought to those within OU's program.

Riley chuckled at the confident nature of Fields’ answer about who was the team’s best at forcing turnovers.

“Yeah, I bet he was [quick to say that],” he said. “Pat’s done a nice job of that. There's several. Tre Brown has had a lot of breakups. Bookie (Brendan Radley-Hiles) has had a lot of big plays. Delarrin Turner-Yell has showed up in that quite a bit. It's been a group effort … Job number one is get the guy on the ground. Job number two is getting the ball out, and it is being emphasized. We’re seeing that more on this field right now.”

Grinch’s assessments of players have been blunt and his reviews haven’t always been kind.

His comment in the spring about how he would tattoo the number “129” on players if he could — OU ranked 129th nationally in pass defense last season — was widely circulated. He didn’t really mean it, Grinch said Friday, adding that reminders about the defense’s past mistakes will become less effective as the season nears.

Riley still backed his defensive coordinator, saying no one can ignore “the elephant in the room.” Ultimately, both coaches want numbers to speak for themselves.

“It’s a results business,” Grinch said. “We can say we’re doing better. It’s very, very easy as a coach, you can walk off the practice field every single day feeling great. You can tell yourself the right story — ‘We’re getting better. We’re doing better.’ [But] oh, by the way, everybody else in the country’s getting better.”

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