Aug. 30—The biggest battles on the football field usually occur between the offensive and defensive line.
That's also the way sophomore defensive end Ethan Downs sees it. And when it comes to the rest of the defensive ends, Downs sees the position group as Spartan soldiers.
He illustrated his point by using the movie "300", a 2006 action movie based on the Persian Wars, to describe the group's mindset and cohesiveness as a unit.
"Everybody's stronger together, right?" Downs said. "If you've ever seen the movie '300', those guys will go to war together, die together, bleed with each other. I feel like we're becoming those kind of Spartans. [We're] just fighting together, trusting each other and if we screw up, we're able to correct each other, hold each other accountable. It's really healthy. It's really cool."
If the defensive ends are Spartans, Downs and Reggie Grimes are the leaders. Both players will start at defensive end for the Sooners' season opener against UTEP Saturday.
Downs saw some playing time last season and has been one of the standout players during spring and preseason practices, and he'll be one of three underclassmen to start on the defense. Despite his youth, he's been one of the leaders of the defense since the end of last season.
"It's an honor that they trust me to go out there against UTEP and start," Downs said. "There's a lot of depth in the room. It's an honor, but I'm not satisfied. I want to be the best out here, best in the league. I just want to be great."
Downs and Grimes have become a dynamic duo that leads the defensive ends, and Downs is taking his cues on leadership from Grimes, who stepped up following the staff and player departures last season.
"Me and Reggie are like brothers. It's really cool," Downs said. "We were just talking outside like, 'Man, we've got to get on some Zoom calls with the other d-ends late at night.' [We're] just going over film, studying our plays, things like that. Me and Reggie are really cool.
"We're growing together. It's cool to see him mature, as well as him rubbing off on me. I'm maturing, he's taking that leadership role, I'm able to piggy back that and take a leadership role as well. It's really cool."
For Grimes, this season has been a big part of his journey. He appeared in eight games during his freshman year before starting five games last season, but he's in for a bigger role on and off the field in 2022.
"I've [gone] from being one of the youngest guys in the room to one of the oldest," Grimes said. "There's now more of a leadership role. With leadership comes confidence. You have to be decisive as a leader in order to lead the other guys. So it's more about focusing on the standards, setting the standard and paying it forward because I know I'm not always going to be here."
While Downs and Grimes will start Saturday, they won't be the only ones to see the field. Jonah Laulu, transfer from Hawaii, has plenty of experience after starting 18 games the past two seasons at Hawaii. Marcus Stripling has appeared in 35 games during his three seasons with the Sooners. R Mason Thomas is the only freshman listed on the depth chart at defensive end, and teammates have raved about his impact since arriving in Norman.
It's a position group OU head coach Brent Venables has confidence in.
"I like their mindset," Venables said. "I like that we've got some good length to us there, learning how to play physical. Ethan's probably the most physical in that room. It's a group that's hungry, it's got great awareness of where they're at, what their weaknesses are. They have an awareness and then the action that you need to make improvement. [They're] humble, let you coach them.
"A group, again, that can run, show the propensity to play the run and the pass. It's a hungry group that has a good edge to them. They're in a confident space right now and they've got tremendous upside as a group, as well. That's a group, really like both sides of the ball, I expect great improvement as the season goes along."
Downs feels good about the group he's leading, too.
"For me and Reggie to be called up that we're starting, it doesn't mean we're going to play more than [the others]," Downs said. "They're going to be right behind us. They've got our backs just like we've got their backs. It's all about team."
Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at email@example.com or at 405-366-3580