OU makes room for Bonitto, Ugwoegbu
Nobody at Oklahoma was disappointed to have linebacker Jon-Michael Terry returning for his redshirt senior season this year.
After showing real signs of everything coming together in 2019, his season was cut short midway through due to a season-ending injury.
The Sooners’ motto of next man up was in full effect as redshirt freshman Nik Bonitto became the guy at the RUSH linebacker position, while true freshman David Ugwoegbu saw whatever snaps Bonitto didn’t down the stretch.
It worked. Bonitto had his memorable night in Waco when he capped off OU’s biggest comeback win in program history with an interception in the final minute. Ugwoegbu showed just how dynamic he could be with a banner outing in Stillwater in a Bedlam victory.
Both so young, with so much promise. The goal of any defense, and that includes the Alex Grinch Speed D at OU, is to have the 11 best out there.
You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand a healthy Terry combined with Bonitto and Ugwoegbu means someone is the odd man out.
Or is that the case?
The Sooners found the answer by moving Ugwoegbu to an inside linebacker position. Those signs of him flashing as an edge rusher in 2019 are still there in 2020, albeit in a different way.
So much so that head coach Lincoln Riley even went out of his way to compare Ugwoegbu to a certain first-round NFL Draft selection from the spring.
“We felt like we needed some of the depth and experience that David had from playing it a year and some of that talent in the inside linebacker room so we've always thought he had a skillset that could potentially fit there,” Riley said. “He's done a good job handling it. Coach Odom's done a really nice job bringing him along in a short time.
“He reminds me ... they're different types of players, but there's a lot of similarities to him and Kenneth in that, Kenneth's first year or two here, you could tell he was gonna be really good at the position, but you could also tell that he hadn't played it and was kinda learning on the fly. I think there's been some of that with David but David has really progressed nicely to the point where we're very confident with him being in the game making plays.”
Riley admitted there was a strong thought of moving Ugwoegbu inside going back to the spring. Obviously because of COVID-19, the transition never actually happened.
Now halfway through the season, Ugwoegbu is starting to find his groove. A blocked punt and tackle for loss against Texas. A key third down tackle in open space to finish a drive at TCU.
He’s not getting 40-50 snaps yet, but he’s making the ones he does get count.
“The biggest difficulty in moving to the inside position is learning the whole playbook,” Ugwoegbu said. “Not only do I need to know the job of what I need to be doing, but I need to know the jobs of the people upfront and the DBs behind me.
“I wouldn’t say I was scared or alarmed, but I was definitely aware to what the challenge was going to be. Our coaches explained that I should be taking pride in moving inside. This is not a move because I wasn’t doing my job. They were moving me because I could greatly help this defense at the inside spot.”
There are no losers in this equation. Ugwoegbu has found his home inside, while Bonitto, who once looked raw at RUSH, has become the team’s most dominant pass rusher.
Their biggest supporters might be each other.
“I knew David was a kid no matter where you put him that he was going to be a playmaker regardless,” Bonitto said. “Whether it's at RUSH, whether it's at MIKE or WILL. I knew he'd be able to pick it up and I knew once he's actually getting a chance to play in a game. You see he'll be able to make plays no matter where.”
It's not a coincidence that the OU defense has looked different in the last couple of games also coincides with Bonitto being able to finish plays.
He was there in position in losses to Kansas State and Iowa State but simply was unable to earn the sack or tackle for loss.
That’s changed, and so, too, have the fortunes of the OU defense. As good as he is and has shown, he’s still nowhere near what the staff believes he will be going down the road.
“Nik's a really talented guy,” Grinch said. “He's made some big plays around here but he's still just scratching the surface of how good he can really be. I think he's become a more kind of multifaceted rusher.
“Early in his career was just all speed, all speed, all speed and he's added to that which has made him tougher to block and also think he's really grown and progressed both in just kind of strength, technique, understanding as far as defending the run game. He's much more well-rounded but you know, still, so much room to go with his upside, which is exciting.”
Terry and Bonitto have made a formidable one-two combination at RUSH. Ugwoegbu is rolling in his new role. OU took what could have been a sticky situation and has turned into one of the strengths of an ever-improving defense.