NORMAN, Okla. – No position was hit harder at graduation than that of defensive tackle. OU played four defensive tackles last year and two graduated, including Lombardi Award winner and first team All-American Tommie Harris. However, equally critical to the Sooners' success over the last four years was the play of Kory Klein, who also graduated taking with him the true spirit of Sooner football.
"Sometimes you have to look at what a football player totally brings to a program before you can truly appreciate his worth to that team," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. "Kory meant so much to this team on-and-off the field. He played in some big games for us, played with great technique and played with tremendous passion. In the locker room and in the weight room, Kory was always a leader for us and even for a guy like Tommie was a guy that the rest of the team could look up two.
"Losing Tommie hurts, just because of his great ability and the fact that teams had to game plan for him each and every game. However, in Kory we will lose so many of the intangibles that it takes to be a great football team. I know somebody will step up, but until they actually do it you aren't sure how you are going to replace guys like Tommie and Kory."
The guy that could step up in both areas is senior Dusty Dvoracek. Playing in Harris' shadow the last couple of years, Dvoracek was able to still make a name for himself and will go into next season on the Lombardi Award watch list and a definite All-American candidate.
"It is going to be strange to not have Tommie and Kory playing beside me," said Dvoracek. "Both were great players and great teammates. They were two guys you could count on for a number of things. Lynn (McGruder) is that kind of guy as well and I have a lot of confidence in our freshmen, who showed that they could work hard and get after it pretty good. I am just now getting to know Remi (Ayodele), but you can tell he is very athletic and he is a hard worker too. I guess you can say this is my time to lead this group and that is fine by me. I have always tried to be a leader and I am looking forward to taking the next step towards being a leader."
One thing that this group has going for it is assistant coach Jackie Shipp, who may be the most underrated position coach in the country. Players get better under Coach Shipp, and he is optimistic that his two seniors can be good leaders for this group of defensive tackles.
"Dusty and Lynn can be and will be good leaders for this group of defensive tackles," said Coach Shipp. "Both had great off-seasons in different ways. Dusty has always been a great guy in the weight room and he was able to put on eight pounds or so. Lynn has always battled to hold his weight down and he lost 13 to 15 pounds this offseason. For both, it showed great discipline and character and that is something the rest of the group can feed off of.
"Our young defense tackles are very hard workers and they have shown they don't need a lot of motivation. However, every group needs senior leadership and I believe we will be solid in this area."
Outside of Dvoracek and McGruder, no other defensive tackle has any experience at all with the sooner varsity. That means Coach Shipp has to start over with the basics in an effort to get the four on the same page with the two seniors.
"I will have to change my approach somewhat and really go over the basics, because that group I had last year had been through the system for three to four years," said Shipp. "Most of this group hasn't even been in the system a year yet. We won't really change a lot, but we will do more fundamental things, going over the basics again. It is almost like starting from the ground up. You start back at the fundamentals going over aspects of what we are trying to do as a defense. You start from the ground up, build up and put a little more practice hours in."
Dvoracek has played along side Harris for the last two years and drew some All-American attention last year. However, for McGruder, this will be his first opportunity to start and the coaches have total confidence in his abilities.
"It is a great opportunity for Lynn this spring as we are moving him to the three-technique — the position that Tommie and Kory Klein have played," said Shipp. "He will start out the spring as the No. 1 three-technique and he has the physical ability to play the position. This will just come down to him going out there and doing it. He should have a big spring."
There were many times last year that Dvoracek was the Sooners best defensive tackle. Sure, he didn't always get recognized as such with Harris drawing national attention beside him, but the fact remained that Dvoracek had better stats than Harris coming up with 39 tackles, 15 for losses and seven sacks to 34, nine and four for Harris.
"Dusty should get a lot of talk as a preseason All-American," said Shipp. "If he continues to improve and build upon what he did last year he will be an All-American. I think it is a great opportunity for all the guys to be very honest with you. Two positions are open in our four man rotation, so if you will look at it I will have four to five guys in the spring with all of them getting a shot to get into the four man rotation or win a starting job. I really think it is a great opportunity for the whole group."
What is known about juco transfer Remi Ayodele thus far and freshman Lawrence (Mo) Dampeer, Steven Coleman and Carl Pendleton, is that they work extremely hard and the will to be a great player is there. Now, can they transfer that from the weight room to the playing field?
"I expect a lot out of Remi because he was recruited out of junior college to help us immediately," said Shipp. "I think the positive for him is the system they ran for him at NEO, which is the same system that we run here. He has a good idea of our system and our defense. He just needs to come in good shape and get ready to get some of our techniques down. I look for him to come in and compete and not only compete for playing time, but I look for him to come in and compete for a starting position."
"I have been very happy with all three of the young guys and feel very good about their ability to contribute to our football team next year," Shipp continued. "Both Mo and Steven worked very hard to lose weight and did a great job. Once they lost the weight we began to see how well they could move around, and they both have the size and speed to be good players.
"Carl Pendleton is the just the opposite in that he is trying like heck to put on weight. I wish we could have taken the excess pounds from the other two guys and given them to Carl. He is another hard worker who I have been very impressed with. He is a quick learner who is working to play with great technique. I think all three can be good football players next year for us, but they have to get after it in the spring and they need to improve every day to earn playing time.
If you are looking for competition this spring then defensive tackle is a place to start. Two spots are up for grabs and four very good football players are ready to compete, and right in the middle is one very fiery coach. I realize that fans don't like to look away from the ball, but every once in a while you might check the trenches and see how the new defensive tackles are holding up.
Spring Preview: Defensive Tackle
Sooners Illustrated Top Stories
Video: Joe Mixon with historic outing for OUOU coach Bob Stoops talks about the huge performance running back Joe Mixon had in Sooners 66-59 win at Texas Tech.
Sooners Illustrated2:50 PM
Home sweet home in Lubbock for Baker MayfieldA sweeter reunion there couldn't have been for OU quarterback Baker Mayfield in his return to Lubbock.
Sooners IllustratedYesterday at 11:23 PM
Video: Bob Stoops after 66-59 win at TechOU coach Bob Stoops' opening statement following Sooners wild 66-59 victory at Texas Tech.
Sooners IllustratedYesterday at 10:43 PM
Video: Baker Mayfield on record-setting nightOU quarterback Baker Mayfield talks about his record-setting seven-touchdown performance against Texas Tech in his return to Lubbock.
Sooners IllustratedYesterday at 10:30 PM