FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Calvin Thibodeaux saw a special future in Ronnie Perkins while watching the big, St. Louis native working out during fall camp.
Perkins moved well and was a disruptive pass-rusher, especially for a freshman. But Oklahoma’s defensive line coach didn’t envision this kind of season for him.
Perkins finished the year with five sacks — more than any other Sooner.
“We thought he’d have a role just based off him enrolling early,” Thibodeaux said. “But for him to be a starter and leading the team in sacks, I couldn’t tell you I’d see that.”
OU coach Lincoln Riley looked across the line of scrimmage during the Sooners’ 45-34 Orange Bowl loss to Alabama and noticed the difference. Crimson Tide defensive tackle Quinnen Williams only recorded one tackle but still wreaked havoc, and the rest of the defensive front set a palpable tone.
That’s what the Sooners hope to build.
They’ll receive help next season in the form of Jalen Redmond and Michael Thompson, highly touted freshman who were limited by injuries this fall. Redmond appeared in just three games because of blood clot issues and Thompson missed the whole year with a torn ACL.
Four-star defensive end signees Marcus Hicks, Marcus Stripling and Joseph Wete are also on the way.
Whoever takes over as OU’s new defensive coordinator will have a good centerpiece to work with in Perkins, who stands at 6 foot 3, 254 pounds and solidified the Sooners’ edge-rushing linebacker position down the stretch.
Perkins can still grow into his role. He became a regular starter after former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was fired in October, starting six of the final seven games and appearing in all 14 contests.
“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back, with [Curtis Bolton] being the only senior so we’ve got, what, 10 returning starters coming back to defense?” Perkins said. “Then we’ll meet a new defensive coordinator, get to know him, get to know his plans for the defense, rally around him, get the guys to rally around him and see his vision and get to work.”
It’ll take a group effort for OU to raise its defensive standards again. The program hit one of its all-time lows this season, allowing 40 or more points six times.
But much of the improvements start with the defensive front. Opposing quarterbacks were rarely uncomfortable facing the Sooners this fall.
Perkins heard plenty of complaints from the outside about it.
“A lot of people block it out,” he said. “I use it as motivation. I love proving people wrong. I use that as motivation to get better. I know a lot of guys on the team use that as motivation to get better, play better.
“Going into this offseason, that’s definitely going to be one of my big motivators to come back and take my game to the next level for next year.”