The Sooner linebacker corps goes into spring practice riding a positive wave of momentum. Oklahoma returns two out of three starters from a unit that had three of the top four tacklers on the Sooner team with the graduated Clint Ingram fourth with 61.
Leading the way for the Sooner linebacker corps will be weakside linebacker Rufus Alexander (6'1, 231, Sr.) who led the Sooners in tackling a year ago with 102. Alexander earned first team All Big-12 Honors last season and is poised to be listed among the great Sooner linebackers of the past like Rocky Calmus, Torrance Marshall and Teddy Lehman, who have been tutored by Sooner defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables.
"Rufus has made himself into a very good player. He has always been instinctive and smart, and he has done a great job of studying the game. I jut think he has become an excellent player more than anything else, because of his consistency. He plays every down, has gotten more physical and he is more comfortable this year than any other time at directing traffic prior to the snap and still being able to take care of his own business and then some. That is a sign of great growth and maturity in a player.
"He has really come into his own and he really understands and anticipates things before they ever happen. He does that for the whole game. He is able to come off the field and tell you what is going on, and even at times he give you ideas what can be successful. When a guy gets to that level there is a tremendous amount of trust, and I can only hope that he will continue to do that going into the spring and look for ways to improve and to continue to look for ways for our defense to grow and improve.
"We have had a great deal of success at linebacker," Venables continued. "We have been fortunate to have some really good players, who had the willingness to work hard at becoming great and living up to the standard that a lot of great players before them set. I think there is a lot of pride and respect for the guys who are here, and respect for the guys who have played before them, and maturity by the guys who are here to learn from the great ones before them.
"Fortunately, they have carried the torch and passed it on every year that we have been here. We have had some guys recognized among the nation's best who proved themselves from the first year they were here until the time that they leave. A lot of that is to the credit of those young guys and the attitude and willingness to work for it, as well as the product of the system that puts them position to make plays."
Junior Lewis Baker (6-3, 211) moves back to linebacker from safety where his instincts are best suited. Sure, the lack of weight problem still exist, but Baker is a very talented football player who will play a big role on the defense in the spring.
"I would expect there would be great competition at the weakside linebacker spot," said Venables. "Rufus will be pushed by Lewis, because Lewis loves the game and he loves to compete. He wants to be on the field and contribute in any way that he can. I know the mindset that he will bring to the meeting room and to the field every single day will only help Rufus as well, and give us the depth.
"The fact that Lewis has played a year at safety will help him back at linebacker. Our linebackers are expected to cover in the passing game and Lewis has developed some solid skills in the cover area. Rufus is a great player for us, but Lewis gives us great depth at a position that we sorely needed."
Senior Zach Latimer (6-2, 233) played well in the middle a year ago finishing second on the team in tackles with 84. However, all fall Latimer battled a shoulder injury and post-season surgery will keep him out of spring. That will create an opportunity for talented sophomore Curtis Lofton (6-0, 245, So.), who played sparingly in a back-up role last season.
Lofton is having a great offseason. He's at 245 pounds, benches over 400, runs well (4.7) and he has a great vertical jump (35).
"I know I expect a great position battle at middle linebacker," said Venables. "Curtis Lofton was able to get a lot of valuable reps running with the twos in preparation every week. He was always prepared to play and I know that he will give Zach (Latimer) a tremendous battle at the MIKE linebacker position.
"I am excited to see that battle play out. Curtis will get a great deal of reps in the middle during the spring and that will only help his development. Curtis has a world of upside to him and he just needs to get in there and play and develop."
It is going to be hard to keep Zach Latimer out of the line-up when he returns from shoulder surgery, but Lofton will give him a run for his money. However, once Latimer and Rufus Alexander graduate next year, Lofton might move to WILL (weakside).
OU would have to recruit a super middle linebacker, probably a JUCO, to move Lofton to the WILL, but don't be surprised if Lofton does move to and plays great there.
It may not happen next year, but Lofton will eventually start at either the SAM or the WILL, but which position remains to be seen.
Venables commented is encouraged about the development of redshirt freshman linebacker on Lamont Robinson (6-1, 220, RS-Fr.).
"Lamont redshirted a year ago and he has been moved to the middle to compete with Curtis in the spring. He will have an opportunity to get a bunch of quality reps in the spring. I love his attitude, as he has an infectious attitude. He really grew up a lot in the course of the fall in regards to his work ethic. He is really working hard to improve on a lot of the little things technique-wise.
"With his technique, he was a little bit raw coming in just using the type of technique that we ask our guys to use. He worked his fanny off in regards to improving those things and he got better little bit by little bit through the course of the year, and it really paid huge dividends. Moving him back inside is more of a natural position for him."
The toughest competition in the spring will likely take place at strongside linebacker where junior Demarrio Pleasant (6-2, 235), who played in a back-up role a year ago and on special teams, making 10 tackles, and sophomore Ryan Reynolds (6-2, 228), who moves from the WILL over to the SAM.
Reynolds played sparingly in a back-up role, but also played on special teams. Reynolds was often times the first linebacker off the bench indicating that he was the fourth best linebacker on the team a year ago. Reynolds will get a chance to show that he belongs in the starting line-up this spring, but Pleasant will be a very tough challenger.
"We will move Ryan Reynolds over to the strongside linebacker position and he will battle with Demarrio Pleasant," said Venables. "It is my hope that Demarrio can continue to play a couple of different positions to enhance our depth. Demarrio has shown big-play ability and he has shown he is capable of being a quality player in the Big 12. He has just needed an opportunity and now will be it. Ryan showed a tremendous amount of maturity, physicalness and ability during the course of the year.
"Those two (Lofton/Reynolds) in particular, as freshmen anyway, really showed us a great deal, particularly during bowl preparation those first two initial weeks when the young guys got a great deal of the repetitions. They really showed how much they have grown in the system and grown as players."
"There is a lot that we are excited about as a staff in that we get to experiment with some guys and develop depth," said Venables. "Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off. Just playing smart, using good technique and understanding the defense, and really improving throughout the course of the spring will give us a chance to have a really good defense going into the fall."
In summary, Rufus Alexander is getting recognized as one of the best linebackers in the country. He has made the early list for the Butkus and Lombardi Awards, as well as becoming a tremendous leader during the offseason. Coach Venables is moving Lewis Baker back to linebacker and putting him at WLB gives the Sooners a great two-deep at that position.
Venables can't wait to work with Curtis Lofton at MLB, who had a great offseason. Lofton is a great athlete that brings a tremendous attitude to the field. With Zach Latimer out with shoulder surgery, Lofton and Robinson will get a ton of reps and Coach Venables is very excited about both players. Going into two-a-days, the battle at SLB between Demarrio Pleasant and Ryan Reynolds is too close to call, but Reynolds may have a slight lead at the moment due to his mental toughness.
Key to Spring: The position battles are set. We'll see Rufus Alexander and Lewis Baker battle it out at the WILL, Curtis Lofton and Lamont Robinson at the MIKE and Demarrio Pleasant and Ryan Reynolds at the SLB with Zach Latimer waiting in the wings to take on the whoever emerges this spring at the MIKE. Baker will also work as the nickel back this spring as well.
Prelude to Spring: Linebackers
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