Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has been trying to dodge questions about the potential of his defense all season – unwilling to praise or promote any of the freshmen or other young players who have yet to see the field consistently.
But the Sooners’ linebackers will have to be a diverse and talented group, one that will eventually get all that praise. Oklahoma will rotate constantly, changing the number of linebackers and their roles within the defense with almost every play.
It’s a much more experienced group than last season, when senior walk-in Caleb Gastelum came off the bench as the primary back-up. Two deep at every position and potentially three deep at both spots in the middle, Oklahoma potentially has one of the more talented groups in recent memory.
But are they the best since Stoops returned to Oklahoma?
“I don’t know,” Stoops said Tuesday while shaking his head with a smile. “Any time you can get two-deep with quality players, you feel good.”
That’s exactly what Stoops has on his hands. All four linebackers slated to line up for the first snap against Akron on Sept. 5 bring starting experience – 42 of 52 possible starts last season and all saw action in every single game expect for senior JuCo transfer Devante Bond, who did not play against TCU.
It’s the development top to bottom that makes the Oklahoma linebackers a dangerous group.
Bond has a chance to be one of the bigger surprises on the Oklahoma roster, and Eric Striker is a preseason All-Big 12 first teamer. Middle linebackers Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans are a year older, and Evans is almost 20 pounds heavier, finally healthy after a bout with mono last year.
Senior Frank Shannon, who led Oklahoma in tackles two years ago, is back as a top-level back-up and potential starter. The rust is just about gone.
Curtis Bolton and Tay Evans have now spent two years pushing each other. Once just a third-down, pass-rushing specialist, outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is probably the Sooners’ most improved player, Stoops said.
“Linebacker is one of the hardest positions to play because there’s so much movement, there’s changing formations. There’s strength and experience you have to have at linebacker,” Stoops said. “. . . It’s so important to have experienced linebackers. Young ones, it takes a while. We’ve got experience there, and they need to use that experience to play more violently and downhill and make more plays.”
Freshman Arthur McGinnis, who has missed time in camp because of a back injury caused by trying to get too big too fast, still has a ways to go, but his first-year counterpart Ricky DeBerry has played outside linebacker and defensive end – learning from Striker and Bond, who are playing a similar position when the Sooners’ go to a four-man front.
The experienced linebackers are a year better, and from Evans’ perspective, it makes them faster – physically and mentally.
“Our reaction time is like that,” Evans said, snapping his fingers. “You don’t have to sit there and think. This game is so fast, so quick. If you lose a step, you are beat.”
There wasn’t much depth last season, when Evans made the first start of his career. Even on the outside, Bond and Obo weren’t ready to be major contributors at the beginning of the season. Practices were more about just trying to stay out on the field than making significant progress with each simulated snap.
Shannon, Evans and Alexander have all missed time thus far in preseason camp, allowing the young players to get more reps and developing a daily battle for time.
“It creates competition, which is great for me and great for the group and great for the team,” Oklahoma inside linebackers coach Tim Kish said. “I have guys that have to prove themselves.
“Guys that do that in camp will be out there for the first game.”
In the game comes the true test. Being multiple with its defensive fronts means that Oklahoma strategy is as much physical as it is mental.
Sometimes switching between an odd and even front will be based on the Sooners – depth and skill. Other times, it solely based on what the upcoming opponent will look to exploit.
Either way, it’ll be a changing game on a weekly basis, maybe even changing from series to series.
An experienced linebacker group with be at the center of it, needing to be a stabilizing force amid the hopefully-controlled chaos of the Oklahoma defense this season.
“Hopefully, we’ll be the core of the defense,” Evans said. “We’ll lead the defense.”