Despite departures, Oklahoma's defensive line could be a strength

Both departures were potentially devastating.

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips decided to cash in on his payday, leaving Oklahoma as an early entry prospect before becoming a second-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins. He played a critical role in Oklahoma’s defense in 2014, helping the Sooners finish fourth among FBS teams in yards allowed per carry (3.02) and eighth among FBS teams in rushing yards allowed per game (106.38).

Former defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery left Oklahoma, preferring an NFL future with the Green Bay Packers over a third season in Norman, Oklahoma. He was a critical piece of the coaching staff, even earning a promotion to co-defensive coordinator just weeks before his departure. Montgomery’s recruiting prowess was matched only by his ability to develop his young talent into productive playmakers.

Two potentially major contributors to the success of Oklahoma’s defensive line were missing when the Sooners began preseason camp in early August. Now, a few weeks later, the Sooners' defensive line could be just as good, or even better, than last year’s group.

“I think we can be really good,” defensive end Matt Dimon said. “We’re not worried about what people say about us; I know if we play hard in practice, everything will fall in place.”

Sparked by impact newcomers and rapidly developing underclassmen, the overall depth of the unit looks much improved.

“I like where we are depth-wise,” new defensive line coach Diron Reynolds said. “I think we can be multiple, 3-4, 4-3, whatever we want.”

Defensive tackle Marquise Overton, a true freshman, and defensive end Austin Roberts, a junior college transfer, have been particularly impressive, earning praise from the Sooners' coaching staff and teammates. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said Overton has “been one of our best defensive linemen in camp” while coach Bob Stoops has praised Roberts’ speed, technique and hands, calling him “very impressive.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds has slid right into the void left by Montgomery, helping to develop guys like Matt Romar and Jordan Wade into Phillips’ replacements. He spent last year as a defensive assistant at Stanford and has NFL coaching experience with Minnesota, Miami and Indianapolis from 2002-2013.

“Coming from the NFL, he knows what he’s talking about,” defensive end Charles Tapper said. “His style of coaching is different; he’s not going to yell at you. If you have a mistake, he’s going to correct it. You do it twice, you’re going to get pulled.“

Tapper, who earned All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore, is the centerpiece of the line and could provide the star power that might be missing without Phillips. He’s looking to rebound after a lackluster junior season. Romar is set to slot in for Phillips in the middle, joining Overton and Wade to provide solid depth along the defensive interior. Roberts, Dimon, Charles Walker and DJ Ward are among the other defensive linemen fighting for playing time.

It’s a unit that will give Reynolds some options, versatility and better depth than 2014. Romar, Wade and Walker played backup roles a year ago and should be better while the newcomers might make it easier to keep the starters fresh.

“I told those guys, in my mind, I really only have one starter right now: Tapper,” Reynolds said. “The rest of those guys I should be able to close my eyes put them in the game and trust what they can do.”