(Eds: Adds details, comments.)By JEFF LATZKEAP Sports Writer
After spending his first two years at Oklahoma trying to chase down quarterbacks and make tackles in the backfield, Geneo Grissom has earned a nickname from defensive tackle Casey Walker this year: Traitor.
Grissom is making the move from defensive end to tight end this season for the fourth-ranked Sooners, and now spends practices figuring out ways to neutralize his old linemen friends in the run game and get around them to catch passes.
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When he lines up against Walker, David King, R.J. Washington or one of the other guys he used to attend meetings with and compete against for playing time, there’s no holding back.
”It’s all about competition. For me, I was trying to make a name for myself so I could play. On the field, we’re not friends anymore,” said Grissom, who pronounces his first name ”jee-no.”
”We can be friends in the locker room.”
Grissom is making the most of an opportunity he sensed after spring practice. The Sooners lost seniors Trent Ratterree and James Hanna after last season, and the gaping hole at tight end got even bigger when up-and-coming prospect Austin Haywood decided to transfer.
Oklahoma added three tight ends in this year’s recruiting class – Taylor McNamara, Brannon Green and Sam Grant – but still was basically starting over at the position heading into this season. With his work during summer 7-on-7 drills and through the meat of training camp, Grissom has positioned himself to be a potential starter for the season opener Sept. 1 at UTEP.
”He is extremely athletic and very explosive, so if we can channel all that in the right ways, he has an opportunity to help us quite a bit,” his position coach, Bruce Kittle, said.
Kittle is keeping the competition open and holding out hope that more than one of the new tight ends will turn into contributors for the Sooners this season. Each one has established strengths so far, but he calls Grissom the best ”hybrid” of the bunch for his ability in the run and pass game.
”I love catching the ball. I mean, who doesn’t like to score touchdowns?” Grissom said. The run blocking has been the toughest to grasp so far, he said.
”I’m still learning and I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m trying to get better,” Grissom said. ”I’m trying to perfect my craft.”
At times, Grissom earned high praise for his development at a young age at defensive end. But his career so far has been sidetracked by injuries, as he has suffered stress fractures in both feet. He’s had surgery and is healthy now, hoping for the best.
”It’s great. I don’t have any more feet to break, so hopefully we can stay healthy and get on the field,” he said.
Grissom played tight end sparingly at Hutchinson (Kan.) High School, and he remembers drawing a pass interference penalty on one play when he was too rough going up against a defender. But he was a fan of former NFL-bound Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham even then.
After spring ball was finished, he talked to his father about the opportunity he saw at tight end and the possibility of making a switch. Eventually, he convinced his dad it was a good idea and decided to approach coach Bob Stoops about it.
”I didn’t know what to expect when I went up to his office, but he gave me the opportunity and I’m pretty pleased with it,” Grissom said.
”I just knew that we had a lot of (defensive) ends that could play and I knew that we were – I don’t want to say lacking in tight ends but we were a little short in depth and I knew that I could play the position,” he added.
Grissom said he’s starting to settle into his new position and he thinks he’s better able to explode off the ball when it’s snapped now. Along the way, he and the other tight ends are trying to help each other out and make a perceived weakness of the team into a strength.
”At camp, we’re not only playing for position on the depth chart, we’re also playing for reps. It wasn’t so much worrying about who’s starting. We’re all trying to play, we’re all trying to get reps and work the tight end back into the game plan,” Grissom said.
With McNamara and Green having the most experience, despite only joining the program in January, there figure to be some growing pains.
”Every day is quite a learning curve for our guys. They’re doing a good job with it, but the more stuff they see and the more reps we get, the better we get,” Kittle said. ”We’ll continue to do that and when we play the first game, they won’t be perfect and hopefully we’ll do enough right things to keep ourselves on the field. That’s what we’re hoping anyway.”