The question was never whether D.J. Graham was going to be an Oklahoma Sooner. A diehard fan growing up, once the offer was made, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
However, the question that lingered was about whether it would be at receiver or defensive back. Because even when he was offered at OU’s on-campus camp heading into his junior season, he performed a lot at receiver but was offered at defensive back.
Graham knew he was going to be a Sooner, but looking back, even he admits what the initial plan was didn’t exactly correspond to what he thought or what he wanted.
“I had wide receiver aspirations. I wanted to come to OU and play under Lincoln Riley and play receiver,” said Graham last week. “It was tough a little bit. It was just a little, like, I don’t know, you could tell I really still wanted to play receiver a little bit and coach Grinch and coach Manning, they had to sit me down and tell me, look man, you could really use what you learned on the offensive side of the ball and you can implement it on the defensive side of the ball.
“Once I once I heard that and kept hearing it, they were still in my ear and all that. And then also me having a little bit of success, it sort of pushed me over more to the defensive side and I could say now I’m completely bought in.”
Completely bought in, as evidenced by what Graham was able to do in the final eight games of the season and the highlight-a-day Graham has been throughout the first two weeks of preseason camp.
After not playing in the first three games during OU’s 1-2 start, Graham made his college debut in the Red River Rivalry against Texas. Well, there’s one way of being introduced to college football.
The stage wasn’t too big that afternoon, and it hasn’t been too tough for Graham to navigate ever since. He finished the year with 21 tackles and had his first interception, culminating as being one of the starters for OU’s win against Florida in the Cotton Bowl.
“As that season went on, I feel like DJ got more and more comfortable with what was being asked,” said cornerbacks coach Roy Manning in the spring. “He got more and more comfortable. These guys are coming out of high school and all of a sudden, you’re thrust into a football game, and so, he did mature as the season went on.
“We have high expectations because I think he played almost 200 snaps last year on defense. High expectations and just still have to continue to go up in his development and his maturity as much as anything.”
Look at OU’s depth chart, and it would feel like a no-brainer decision. The path to the field was going to be a lot easier on the defensive side of the ball compared to fighting for a spot at receiver.
That’s easy to say, but harder to hit home for someone like Graham who had more than 2,000 yards as a receiver and 17 touchdowns. That’s what he knew, but he knows something different now.
“I would say I really started to flip and make that decision that, ‘OK, I’m a defensive back,’ I’d probably say really at the beginning of the season when I really started playing,” Graham said. “I try to look at it as, you know, I’m a receiver. I still have a little bit of that in me when the ball’s in the air.”
And that receiver mindset is definitely helping Graham in the secondary because nobody understands better what a receiver is trying to accomplish than someone who has been there. Not just been there but succeeded at a high level.
He lines up this way, gonna run this route. Uses that tempo, then the thinking is the route will be done this way. Little intricacies that no doubt have helped accelerate the curve of Graham’s development as he enters his sophomore season.
It’s a fight defensive coordinator Alex Grinch doesn’t have to battle anymore.
“It was centered around we thought he had a good skill set for both, but it centered around also where we thought he had a chance to make an impact quickest,” said Grinch. “Kind of started to lock into DB as we got toward the end of the recruitment process.
“As he’s gotten here and improved, we believe that’s going to be his future. He’s doing some good things. He’s playing well, getting more confident in the schemes. He’s very talented. You’re seeing some of that talent start to show up on the field because of that confidence.”
Graham showed what he could in coverage down the stretch of the season, but he’s not a small guy, either. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up, and that’s a mentality that he learned in high school that is serving him well with the Sooners.
“Have no fear,” Graham said. “I think that’s a big thing that, you know some corners have is the fearful of getting, getting ran over, getting juked. Like, no, no, do what you learned and, you know, and if that’s the least that you do and everything else will play out. So I just, I try to have no fear and I just want to trust my technique and be physical.”
Graham is positioning himself to be one of the starting cornerbacks for the Sooners. Not the career path he expected as a junior in high school, but one he is fully embracing and now ready to make his mark.