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There are high expectations for the Oklahoma Sooners in 2021. They have as high a ceiling for success as anyone in the country, including Alabama and Clemson. Lincoln Riley and the Sooners have been on the verge of National Championship contention for several years, but one thing was always missing.

A defense.

The offense we know is going to be good. That’s the standard for the Sooners heading into Riley’s fifth season as the head coach. But they’ve been held back each year by a defense that has struggled to get stops and create turnovers. That started trending in the right direction in 2020 as the Sooners defense began holding up their end of the bargain.

Now, despite the losses of Ronnie Perkins, Tre Brown, and Tre Norwood, there is a ton of optimism about this Oklahoma Sooners defense. That’s because the defensive line looks to be one of the best the Oklahoma Sooners have ever had.

Though he’s listed as a linebacker by most, Nik Bonitto operates as more of an edge rusher, and his nine sacks in 2020 led the Oklahoma Sooners. He was college football’s most productive pass rusher, according to Pro Football Focus.

Isaiah Thomas had a breakout season in 2020 with 7.5 sacks for the Sooners and is as productive against the run as he is as a pass rusher. With his ability to play on the edge and inside on passing downs, Thomas is as important of a defensive player as the Sooners have. Legal issues notwithstanding, he should have another great year for Oklahoma.

Bonitto and Thomas will be aided significantly by an improved interior defensive line. Jalen Redmond’s will be huge for the Sooners, and LaRon Stokes was an underrated part of the rotation last year. Perrion Winfrey is on many All-American watch lists.

Throw in potential contributions from Freshman Ethan Downs. OU Insider Recruiting Analyst Parker Thune mentioned on the Locked On Sooners Podcast as the incoming player with the best chance to contribute in year one.

“Ethan Downs is going to be an impact player for Oklahoma on the defensive side of the football this season. He’s a guy that my colleague Brandon Drumm and I have been pinpointing as a potential day one impact contributor for months and years now. It’s really no secret that he was pound for pound the most gifted in the state of Oklahoma in the 2021 class… Downs is a beast of an athlete. The absolute hardest worker you’ll ever encounter. Loves the weight room. Loves competition. Loves to just punch someone in the mouth. The way he just explodes off the edge and can dominate any opponent in the trenches is remarkable. He’s earned a lot of buzz early on. A lot of love from the coaching staff. A lot of love from his teammates… He’s just a classic old school, smashmouth style of football player.”

If the Oklahoma Sooners can get a pass rush off the edge from someone other than Bonitto and Thomas, it will pay huge dividends for Alex Grinch and the Oklahoma Sooners defense.

For the Oklahoma Sooners to get where they want to go in 2021, they’ll need the defensive side of the ball to be as good as many think it will be. The offense will be good, but as we’ve seen with this team in years past when they get to the College Football Playoff, a good offense isn’t enough to get you through to the National Championship game.

And while there might be questions at certain spots on the defense (cornerback), the Sooners look ready to contend with the guys they’ll deploy along the defensive front.