NORMAN, Okla. — Out of all the positions that should be watched this spring the most important will be linebacker. The Sooners lost two out of three starters off of last year's tremendous linebacker unit, including Butkus winner Teddy Lehman. The third starter, Lance Mitchell, is coming back from ACL injury and will be limited in the spring.
Thus, two starting positions are up for grabs and the future at middle linebacker could be decided as well. Fortunately for the Sooners, there is tremendous talent on the roster and whoever emerges as the starters may be raw, but talented.
"It makes it really exciting. I know there is a real sense of urgency at our position like there always is, but even more so this year," said Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables. "It is more exciting to get things started off and go to meetings to get to that first practice, to get to that first scrimmage and to get through that first week. Then it is going to be exciting to watch the position battles take place and to really watch guys grow up.
"What really gets you excited as well is that there is an awful lot of talent on our team in waiting. There are guys who have learned over the last two to three years from some great players who have departed. What you hope and believe is that they were aware of the opportunity to learn from some great leaders and from some great character guys that represented our great university in a tremendous way. You also hope they learned from them as players, on how to practice and how to really play the game."
Who plays where is a big question among the linebacker core right now. We know that Mitchell will eventually be the starter at middle linebacker, but who lines up outside and who is his backup is a big question right now.
"We have an idea where we are going to try some guys out, but for the depth and the overall best interest of this football team the best thing is for guys to develop the mobility to play multiple positions," said Venables. "We need guys who can play both outside linebacker or middle linebacker's who can also play one of the outside linebackers. It gives them a better understanding of the complexity of the defense, their roles within it, and it makes them a better player when they understand from different positions the defense."
Sophomore Lewis Baker and redshirt freshman Rufus Alexander both had tough battles in the offseason. Baker battled to put on weight (five pounds to 210) and Alexander to regain his speed after ACL surgery. Junior Clint Ingram had a great offseason getting up to 233 pounds and he has always been a sub 4.6 runner.
"Our guys had a great of-season and that has become the norm with our group," said Venables. "I am really proud of the guys and their approach to the out-of-season. I was very pleased with their maturity and mental approach. They will get after it when that first whistle blows, that is for sure. It is a group that has tremendous talent, explosiveness and the ability to change direction. It has runners and hitters throughout, and I have a lot of guys eager to prove their worth, and who are very excited about the opportunity to go through and compete on the field. t makes it very exciting and creates a great atmosphere to compete in and be a part of as a coach."
Who plays outside linebacker will be a feature position to watch in the spring.
"Rufus' big thing is that he is close or very, very close to being back at full speed out there," said Venables. "He is splitting hairs in that regard, and more than anything it is the mental aspect of his recovery that he has to get through. The people that have gone through that type of surgery understand that last mental hurdle that they have to overcome to really turn it loose and test the waters is the toughest to get over. He has to learn to trust that the knee is healthy. When he will get to that point he will be extremely aggressive. He weights 225 to 228 and he had a good out-of-season and we are going to try Rufus at both the 'WILL' and the 'SAM'. We are going to do the same thing with Lewis Baker."
"Lewis has fought tooth and nail to put the weight on and I think he just now understands the concept that he has to consume more calories than he actually burns to gain the weight," Venables continued. "Sometimes it takes guys a little bit longer to grasp what it takes to put on the weight. However, when the light finally does go on, and I believe it has with Lewis, then you can see some amazing results. We are expecting that in the future.
"Lewis is a too-hard and want-too type of guy. He will do most anything to get on field and that is what is most important to him. He has tremendous confidence and he has a chance to be an awfully good player for us. I hope he goes out and proves that this spring. He will play the 'SAM' and the 'WILL' as well, and we are looking to create depth. The ideal situation is to get the three best linebackers on the field and teach them the positions that they need to play."
While Baker and Alexander are the headliners among the young linebackers, they are not the only talented players vying for playing time.
"Zach Latimer is going to play some linebacker and defensive end," said Venables. "We are also going to try him at some middle linebacker to see what Zach can do there. He is excited about that opportunity."
Mitchell won't do much this spring, but he is ahead of schedule with his rehab and things are on schedule for the potential All-American to be ready this fall.
"Things are going great with Lance, but he does it in a quiet manner," said Venables. "He has not missed a workout, not missed a rehab. He is setting personal records in his upper body lifting and he has been getting after it with his lower body lifting. He is ahead of schedule on his changing of direction rehab and I am very excited as we are as a staff with his rehab. He has the green light and he has been fully released to participate in the spring, but I will take a very cautious approach with him because I need to have him ready next fall and not next week. It will give an opportunity for some of those young guys to learn, but I want him out there to develop some leadership and chemistry with that No. 1 unit. I want to give him some confidence going into the summer as well. All of his goals are reachable, but we are not going to be careless with our approach with him."
Without question Mitchell is the starter, but who will be his backup is the big question, and that is where the super competition will take place in the spring.
"We will look at a number of guys at different positions," said Venables. "Wayne Chambers will be in the middle. Gayron Allen will be the first guy off the bench when Lance isn't going in the middle. We have moved Clint Ingram exclusively to 'SAM' along with Russell Dennison and Demario Pleasant.
"When we get into long-yardage situations that is where Lewis Baker could go from the 'WILL' to the 'SAM'. Rufus can play the 'WILL' as well in that long-yardage situation. We are trying to find the best combination of players, based on down and distance and the matchups that we can. Plus, we want to put guys in positions where they can turn it loose, and I believe that will help Clint big-time at the 'SAM'. It will simplify things for him and put him on one-third of the field, instead of a guy that is responsible for the entire field at middle linebacker. Middle linebacker is a little more complex than the outside linebackers. We hope that Clint gains some confidence and gets to the point where he can help us."
Pleasant will compete at the 'SAM' and middle and it is not out of the questions that Pleasant isn't going to be the middle linebacker of the future. However, Coach Venables is looking for ways to get the best players on the field, and if that means Pleasant plays the 'SAM' then that will happen.
So, make sure you have your rosters handy as several combinations will be tried as Coach Venables looks for the best three linebackers on the squad.
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