Talented front seven will be key for OU's defensive growth

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

So much for half-stepping its way into the 2009 season.

Oklahoma’s defense will be facing an immediate challenge in their opener Saturday night when the Sooners face BYU’s vaunted passing attack.

Even as some teams choose to start the season against directional schools and other FCS fodder, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy couldn’t be more excited about the Sooners’ first game.

“I love the fact that we are playing these guys,” McCoy said. “It gives us a challenge at the beginning of the year that’s good for us. I’m licking my chops to be playing BYU, because as a defense, you want those challenges.”

The Sooners will be tested by a typically strong BYU passing game keyed by tight end Dennis Pitta and quarterback Max Hall, who led the Cougars to the 2007 Mountain West Conference title.

But Hall’s stature has diminished after his struggling 2008 finish when he threw six interceptions and one touchdown in his final two games. Not coincidentally, the Cougars lost both games to finish a 10-3 season with a Las Vegas Bowl loss to Arizona.

“There were games last year that I was really good in, and there were games last year that I wasn't so good in," Hall told the Salt Lake City Deseret News. "I take that as a learning experience. Hopefully this year, for the most part, I feel very comfortable back there and I can lead the offense in the right direction."

The Sooners’ success against BYU will hinge on making Hall uncomfortable. With three-deep talent at every defensive line position, the quick and athletic Sooners should be ready for a BYU offensive line that has struggled with injuries throughout summer camp.

If the Sooners’ linemen can make plays and reduce the reliance on blitzes in Saturday’s game, Oklahoma should be in good shape.

McCoy is a preseason All-Big 12 pick, but he is ably supported by a strong cast both at defensive tackle and defensive end.

“When you consider Auston English, Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal, those are as good a group as any we’ve had at defensive end,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “And then with Gerald and (defensive tackle Adrian) Taylor and DeMarcus Granger inside, all those guys have played really, really well. I think we’ve got a chance to be a special group in there.”

One area of concern for Oklahoma is at middle linebacker where two backups to starter Ryan Reynolds are out of the lineup. Freshman Tom Wort was challenging for playing time before he sustained a season-ending knee injury midway through training camp. And backup Mike Balogun will not play against BYU while the details of his lawsuit against the NCAA are being settled.

Reynolds missed the last eight games of last season after sustaining a season-ending knee injury against Texas. His recovery has gone nicely and he feels ready to pick up where he left off before his injury occurred.

“We feel good about what we’ve got,” Reynolds said. “The chemistry is there like before. This can be a special defense if we keep growing and working. I’m excited to play a game and see what we’ve got.”

Despite Wort’s injury and Balogun’s iffy status, Stoops remains excited about his defensive talent.

The Sooners return nine defensive starters and should have one of the nation’s premier defenses. Depth in the trenches is the foundation on which the unit’s growth will be built.

“To me, your best defenses always start up front,” Stoops said. “I really love our front four guys and our linebackers. I’m very hopeful that we have a really special defense. And with this group, we have a chance to be one.”