The defensive line had a hole in its heart, damaged from the loss of former Oklahoma defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who left the program shortly after being promoted to co-defensive coordinator.
But senior defensive end Charles Tapper, also a team captain, trusted head coach Bob Stoops. Tapper knew Stoops wouldn’t bring in just anyone. It would have to be someone who would help the defensive line.
He went to meet Diron Reynolds for the first time not entirely worried but still filled with a little doubt, either. It didn’t take long for any concern to dissipate. The first time Tapper met Reynolds, who has a very different personality than Montgomery, Tapper knew that he was going to listen to Reynolds – doing whatever he said.
“The first day I went to his office to talk to him, you just felt the genuine, positive vibe,” Tapper recalled Tuesday. “I was sold.”
It’s that vibe that set Reynolds apart immediately, a calming presence on the sideline - a very unusual characteristic for a defensive line coach. He was personal. Tapper recalled Reynolds saying that he didn’t want to just be a coach, but a friend and a mentor at times too.
In the spring, he slowed things down for D.J. Ward, who played a career-high snaps against Baylor last week. Reynolds talked on a personal level with defensive tackle Matt Romar, who said in the spring that the two spoke about Romar’s new baby girl.
Reynolds quickly won over the rest of the line as well.
“I always felt comfortable with him being here, just getting used to him,” Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Wade said. “Everything he has been teaching has been helping since the first day he got here.”
But Reynolds is not just a sweetheart. He’s willing to be an enemy to his players too, like when they miss class, Tapper said. Having worked alongside mild-mannered coaches like Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, Reynolds has developed a casual demeanor – one Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops called “cerebral.”
His coaching style is different, though. It’s an aggressive one that puts emphasis on defensive linemen getting into the backfield and is much different than the gap-management, read-and-react style that the Sooners played last year.
“He really loves for us to get sacks and make plays on the quarterback,” Tapper said. “He said that if you knock out the quarterback, that’s pretty much the star of everybody’s team. That’s like the snake’s head. If you cut the head off the snake, the snake can’t do too much after that.”
Tapper, who hauled down Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the second half last weekend, has benefitted maybe more than anyone else. Over the last three games, Tapper has had six sacks. Before this stretch, he has six sacks in his previous 27 games combined – spanning three years of play. He has already set or tied career-highs in every statistical category.
From sophomore phenom to junior bust to a senior with rising NFL Draft potential, Tapper is becoming polished. It was Reynolds who put the finishing touches on a player who didn’t know the difference between an ‘A’ gap and a ‘C’ gap just a few years ago.
The rest of the defensive line has followed Reynolds lead as well. He’s constantly working after practice with the young defensive linemen, who don’t get as many reps as the top units. Rolling lineman has helped and increased experience and depth has also led to a spike in production.
Reynolds’ aggressive mindset has helped transform a unit that had just 11 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. This year, the defensive line already has 17.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss. There isn’t a player on the defensive line that isn’t having the best statistical year of his career.
The combination of a down year and a departed friend and coach left a big hole in the spring. It has been filled.
“It was like that was the perfect fit for the guys whose hearts were hurting,” Tapper said.