Redshirt sophomore nickelback Jeremiah Criddell is starting 2021 spring practice with a different role.
Entering last season’s spring practices, Criddell had just three games under his belt and redshirted as a freshman. The former four-star recruit who chose Oklahoma over the likes of Alabama and Oregon had yet to make an impact, although he was OU’s second-highest ranked defensive recruit from the 2019 class, per Rivals.
Now, as he heads into his third season, Criddell has big expectations and it’s assumed he’ll take the starting job from Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles after he transferred to Washington. Criddell took on a leadership role during the offseason, according to his teammates, after appearing in all 12 games last season, including a start against Baylor on Dec. 5.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody I’ve been around that’s made a bigger jump between that first year and second year,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said in a March 22 press conference. “Really swimming that first year, and the second year, all of the sudden you are saying wait a second, if he can make that same jump, now we got one.”
The 5-foot-11 defensive back arrived in Norman the same year Grinch was hired and was part of the recruiting class after the Sooners lost to Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
Although the defense before Criddell enrolled was 101st out of 130 teams in Division I in points allowed in 2019 — over 33 points per game — he was one of Grinch and head coach Lincoln Riley’s prized defensive recruits. He signed with OU in spite of helping flip the narrative of the defense.
Still, Criddell knew he’d have to earn his stripes with OU, although the defense had its mishaps in the past. He trusted Grinch and Riley’s vision for where the team was headed and thought Grinch would push him to be a better player.
“Coming out here to Oklahoma, I told myself that not everything’s going to be glitz and glamour, not everything’s going to be pretty,” Criddell told reporters on Monday. “I’m gonna have to work for everything I get. … When things per se didn’t go the way that I may have planned them to, I had to just trust the process.”
Criddell said playing the nickelback position requires versatility and knowing the entire defense. Defensive backs Tre Norwood and Tre Brown left for the NFL Draft, and Radley-Hiles’ transfer leaves the Sooners without three key players, leaving Criddell as a player to step up.
Although junior linebacker David Ugwoegbu was in the same recruiting class as Criddell, and has seen more consistent playing time, he’s witnessed Criddell grow more confident.
“He’s going to have a huge impact on the defense, not only from his play, but he’s a lot more vocal,” Ugwoegbu said. “He’s really established himself as a leader and a lot of the young guys and even me, I look to him sometimes as someone to fire the defense up.”
On March 22, Grinch said there was a difference in how Criddell has carried himself in practice. That was seconded by Criddell on Monday, when he said he must have the confidence of thinking he’s the starter.
Criddell credits his improvement to listening to Grinch. Criddell said he struggled with fighting adversity, as he wasn’t a consistent player on the defense, but continued to work and not let his emotions take over. Senior safety Delarrin Turner-Yell added on March 22 that Criddell has been a smarter player and doesn’t second guess himself.
Criddell, facing high expectations, is still focused on improving throughout the spring. His journey was long, taking three seasons before perhaps earning substantial playing time this fall, but he’s ready for the task.
“I know that I’m the guy ... that it’s time for me to step up,” Criddell said. “And it’s time to make big plays and it’s just that simple. I can’t overthink it, I’ve been playing football all my life.”