Jamar Cain walked onto the field with Isaiah Thomas not knowing how quickly COVID-19 would change his first year at OU.
Cain was introduced as Oklahoma’s new outside linebackers and defensive ends coach Feb. 16, 2020, replacing Ruffin McNeill, who returned to North Carolina to care for his elderly father. Then, just 26 days into Cain’s new job, OU shut down athletic competition and practices March 12 due to COVID-19 and didn’t reopen its football facilities until July 1.
The highly touted recruiter who succeeded at Arizona State, Fresno State and FCS powerhouse North Dakota State before coming to Norman got only one official spring practice with his new players. He couldn’t invite his position groups to his house for Thursday hangouts like he was used to doing, either. But undeterred by circumstances, he continued to do what he does best.
Whether through FaceTime or Zoom, Cain was intent on building rapport with his players in the offseason. During a Monday Zoom press conference, he said “fostering relationships” was his biggest focus amid his first year at OU. Cain was all about trust in year one, and that started during his first conversation with Thomas.
“He said everything that happened in the past, he doesn't care about it,” said Thomas, a redshirt senior coming off a breakout 2020 season with a team high 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. “He wants to instill that confidence in me now so I can be the player that I have the potential to be. And I mean, from that moment on, I just knew he had the confidence in me to let me do my thing and let me do my job, but within the confines of our defense.”
Pandemic aside, Cain’s plan to build trust at OU was no different than during his first year at North Dakota State. A recruit visiting his future home, Greg Menard wandered into the Bison’s film room the spring before Cain’s initial season in Fargo. There, he heard Cain tell rising senior defensive end Kyle Emanuel and others they weren’t “trusting the system.”
When Menard, a defensive end who ended up with 33.5 tackles for loss and 24 sacks in three seasons under Cain, returned for his freshman season that fall, Emanuel had bought in. He delivered 32.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks, winning the Buck Buchanan Award as the best defensive player in the FCS and becoming a fifth-round pick of the then San Diego Chargers.
“You could see him trusting the technique Coach Cain was teaching him and trusting that Coach Cain had his best interest in mind, and just fully committing to it,” Menard told The Daily on Monday. “And the results speak for themselves."
Now, one year and 17 days since OU lost its 2020 spring practice to COVID-19, Cain and his players have seen the benefit of that kind of trust as they enter the second week of 2021 spring camp. Despite coronavirus constraints, Cain was able to create a culture of good faith and watch his players take off. In particular, redshirt junior Nik Bonitto, who Cain highlighted Monday, excelled by believing what his new coach taught.
After moving to outside linebacker during the offseason, Bonitto became one of the best pass rushers in college football in 2020, earning First Team All-America honors from Pro Football Focus. Starting 10 of OU's 11 games at the rush position, he tallied 10.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks while registering the highest quarterback pressure in the FBS at 25.7 percent.
“He's gonna teach you the fundamentals of the game, and he's gonna teach you just how to be an even better player and person,” Bonitto said of Cain on March 22, speaking to reporters alongside Thomas after the Sooners’ first 2021 spring practice. “And you can see that with what we did last year. I mean, just from everybody from top to bottom, I feel like everybody made tremendous jumps and I feel like this year we’ve gotta hold to that standard again.”
Redshirt senior Jon-Michael Terry’s transfer to Tulsa on Jan. 13 opened up around 300 snaps at rush linebacker for 2021, according to Cain and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. That provides more opportunities behind Bonitto for five-star freshman Clayton Smith, sophomore Brynden Walker and junior Marcus Stripling, who Cain praised Monday for his transition from defensive end.
Alongside Thomas, who continues to gain prowess at both defensive tackle and end, redshirt sophomore Jalen Redmond has returned to the Sooners. Redmond, Thomas’ roommate, opted out of the 2020 season due to health issues related to blood clots after leading OU with 6.5 sacks in 2019. Similar to Thomas, he has the versatility to play tackle and end.
Following 36 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 2014, North Dakota State picked up 78 tackles for loss and 33 sacks in 2015, Cain’s second year. OU had 37 sacks and 81 tackles for loss, ranking third and 10th nationally, respectively, in Cain’s first season in Norman. While already near the top of college football in both categories, the Sooners have potential for more disruption in 2021 if they continue to trust Cain.
“I think personally, I felt that trust towards the end of my freshman year,” Menard said of his confidence level following one season under Cain. “As you spend more time with these coaches and get more reps with these coaches, especially Coach Cain, you see that he’s not leading you astray.”