Spring Position Preview: Linebackers

Junior Rufus Alexander (pictured above forcing a fumble last season against Texas) returns to help anchor OU's linebacker corp this spring. See inside for co-defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables' comments on his linebackers heading into spring practice. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

The tradition of linebacker at the University of Oklahoma is as grand as any college football program in the country. If you look back at the Sooners' prestigious history, you will find names of some of the very best linebackers to ever play college football.

Leon Heath, Kurt Burris, Jerry Tubbs, Wayne Lee, Leon Cross, Jim Gresham, Carl McAdams, Rod Shoate, Daryl Hunt, George Cumby, Brian Bosworth, Dante Jones and Joe Bowden are names that can send Sooner fans back through memory lane for hours.

There has been no letdown of great linebacker play during the Bob Stoops era. The ‘Boz' won the first two Butkus Awards, but during the Stoops era Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman have both won the award. Torrance Marshall and Lance Mitchell didn't earn the big awards, but they were both outstanding linebackers recognized among the best in college football.

Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables coaches the linebackers and is recognized by many as the best linebacker coach in the country. Coach Venables will also be in charge of the defense for the first time without anybody else being a co-coordinator with him. Plus, this spring will mark the move of Bobby Jack Wright from coaching defensive ends to the secondary, and the début of new defensive end coach Chris Wilson.

"I have talked about my situation before and nothing is going to change there. We will determine everything as a staff and I will respect the decisions of the staff before making the final decision on what we will do defensively," said Venables. "Bobby Jack has been in our system since we started and he understands it in and out. There is not a whole lot of transition that goes on outside of adjusting to a new group of players. From an Xs and Os standpoint, we are not re-inventing the wheel, and Bobby Jack is tenured as long as any coach on our staff and we really anticipate an easy adjustment.

"For Chris Wilson, coaching is coaching. It is just a matter of him learning our language and learning how we defend certain schemes. We need to adjust to his technique, how he coaches, how he motivates as those are things he brings to the table. We feel Chris has some great strengths. He is a very personable hard working coach with a good track record of proven success. He is somebody that is a welcome addition of our staff. We don't anticipate any problems in regards to transitions. I expect it to be very smooth, and it has been up to this point."

Spring is the time when all football teams experiment a little bit, and OU is no different. However, OU is pretty set in their ways as well and they use the spring to indoctrinate new players into the system and for the varsity to hone their skills. In the secondary, the Sooners plan to return to a successful formation used during the Sooners most dominating defensive times.

"The main thing that we will do is go back to the boundary and field corner and try to simplify a few things for those guys," said Venables. "That is probably the main thing. We will try to keep things simple for a lot of our young guys, particularly in the secondary. The main thing is that we need to get them to play hard and fast and not tie their hands."

The Sooners return two starters at linebacker, but must replace the all-important middle linebacker position this spring.

"It is not a deep group, but I really feel good about the group athletically, physically and mentally," said Venables. "As a group, they are a very inspired, they play with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, and they are athletic, can run and they are all physical. With those guys we couldn't find a better group of four backers. All things considered, some of them lack some experience, but I am excited about their upside."

To say the Sooners don't have any depth at linebacker is an understatement, but that won't be a problem for them this spring.

"The extra reps are going to make them better. Who cares if they get tired? They don't have to play a game," said Venables. "We will get by and we have some walk-ons who will get there and get some good reps and spell the main guys as well.

"The spring is going to be a great learning experience for them because we are going to be forced to get them a few more reps than what they normally would get. In a normal situation, they would have to share when you are trying to evaluate a two or a three and sometimes even a four, which we don't have the luxury of having right now. That just gives them more opportunities to get on the field and learn and grow as players."

Lance Mitchell played a very good middle linebacker a year ago and his experience and intelligence in the middle will be playing in the NFL next year. Last fall, junior Zach Latimer finally found a home in the middle, but now the question is whether he has the talent to be the starter.

"I am excited about Zach Latimer, who weighs 233-pounds right now," said Venables. "Zach runs in the high 4.5's and is a tremendous athlete. He has very good instincts and is a tremendous athlete. I like the improvement that he made last year behind Lance, and he is excited about his opportunity. However, he knows it is not an inherited right and there is a lot of hard work that he has to put into it.

"He has to make a real commitment to becoming a great player. He certainly has big shoes to fill, but nobody is more excited about that opportunity than Zach. It will be interesting and I am real excited to see how he comes along. I am expecting big things from him. Demarrio Pleasant will also take some reps at middle backer as well as walk-on Ryan McGrath."

Weakside linebacker is the glamour position among the linebacker corp. Both Calmus and Lehman played there, and Rufus Alexander began to make a name for himself last season. He was named All Big-12 second team after finishing third on the team with 69 total tackles.

"Rufus will take the first team snaps for the first couple of weeks, and as long as things go as we hope they do with Lewis Baker in the secondary, Rufus will take the majority of those snaps," said Venables. "Rufus will primarily be backed up by Ian Pleasant, a walk-on linebacker from Western Hills Junior College.

"We have to give Lewis the first couple of weeks at strong safety to make sure that we give him a real opportunity to learn and show what he can do there. We feel real good about the move and feel he can make the transition rather easily. Lewis is our No. 1 starting strong safety right now and we have to find out if he can be that guy."

At strongside linebacker, the Sooners return another starter in Clint Ingram, but it is the SAM where the best competition exists among the linebacker group.

"Clint ended the year as the starter, but Demarrio is going to get every opportunity to compete for the spot," said Venables. "He is going to get every opportunity to get out on the field. They are big, strong, athletic and fast. Again, I think that competition is going to be fun. In a perfect world, they are both out there splitting time equally. Once Demarrio has mastered that position he would have a chance to challenge some other guys at their positions, namely the MIKE linebacker."

Oklahoma set out in recruiting in 2004 to add depth and star power to the linebacker group. In Curtis Lofton, Ryan Reynolds and Lamont Robinson, the Sooners inked one of the best freshmen linebacker classes in the country. So, while Latimer, Alexander, Ingram and Pleasant battling for positions in the spring, they will have to hold off the charges of the freshmen class to maintain their foothold on the depth chart in the fall.

So, in the spring the competition is just beginning for what should be a donnybrook when two-a-days get underway in August.

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