When No. 4 Oklahoma takes the field to start the 2019 season against Houston, it will have been 243 days since Alex Grinch was hired as the Sooners' new defensive coordinator.
Over the past eight months, Grinch and his defense have talked repeatedly about how his new scheme emphasizes playing fast and forcing turnovers. However, Sunday's game will be the first time the world will get to see if the last eight months of talk will be backed up on the field.
Grinch's first test running the defense likely won't be easy, as Houston will have D'Eriq King lining up under center. In 2018, King used his elite speed and throwing abilities to embarrass defenses week-in and week-out, amassing 3,656 yards from scrimmage and 50 total touchdowns. This season, King is widely regarded as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy contender.
“It’s very exciting to start our season out against D’Eriq," junior cornerback Tre Brown said. "It’s a new year for us, and we get to see an electric quarterback who is a Heisman candidate. It’s really going to put us to the test to see if we’re actually real.”
Grinch often emphasizes playing with speed, and the Sooners will need to be fast if they plan on containing King. One of the first things Grinch said he noticed on film with King is his high-level speed.
“The thing that you notice on film is him consistently running by opposing defenses," Grinch said. "Obviously that’s a cardinal sin and an easy way to get beat, so it’ll be a real challenge for us on the back end to make sure we have disciplined eyes and to play top down."
But it's not just King's speed that makes him such a threat, as his 36 passing touchdowns from last season illustrate. Because of this, the Sooners can't solely focus on stopping his running game.
"I don’t know if there’s a magic bullet to (keep him contained), and if there was someone would’ve found it a year ago," Grinch said. "He’s obviously a real talented thrower, and I think you run the risk when you see an athletic guy who can hurt you with his feet and you want to reduce him to just that.
"He’s an elite thrower, and he scrambles to throw as much as he scrambles to run. He makes that offense go and certainly he’s a talented guy, so we have to make sure we have good eye discipline on the back end and corral him before he gets started."
Luckily for the Sooner defense, they are familiar with facing dual-threat quarterbacks. Last season, they had to practice against Kyler Murray, who rushed for 1,001 yards in his 2018 Heisman Trophy-winning season. This year, starter Jalen Hurts is a threat on the ground and so is freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler. Grinch said both Hurts and Rattler have been used in simulating King's game.
While this method may prove to be helpful, neither Hurts nor Rattler is a perfect physical comparison to King. Both stand above six feet tall, while King's five-foot-eleven stature is more comparable to Murray's.
“What you don’t want to do is say, ‘Well, we see athletic quarterbacks every day with our guys,'” Grinch said. “Spencer Rattler is one of those guys back there simulating him, (and) obviously seeing Jalen, this fall camp helps because he makes you pay with his feet. ... You can spy guys, you can do all those things, but you have to remain aggressive in that moment as well. That’s the balance.
"There is no easy answer for him, but we just have to simulate it as best as you can.”