All Oklahoma has to do in the spring at the linebacker position is replace the best defensive player in the Big 12 conference and another solid two-year starter.
That doesn't promise to be easy, but OU has had so many great linebackers in the past that coach Brent Venables is an expert at rebuilding linebacker crops. There always seems to be a great linebacker graduating from Oklahoma and going into the 2007 spring practice the Sooners will face a familiar task.
The latest to graduate is senior linebacker Rufus Alexander, who led the Sooners with 118 tackles (12 for loss) last year. Alexander played well enough to be named the Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year and he was the heart and soul of the defense this past year. The fans' call of "Ruuuuuuuuufus" each time he made a tackle is something that will live forever in Sooner Football history.
Also graduating is starting middle linebacker Zach Latimer, who was second on the team in tackles with 84 and second on the team in tackles for loss with 10. Latimer called the defensive signals and his funny personality kept the defense loose and together during trying times. OU director of sports communication Kenny Mossman once said that Latimer was so popular on the team that when the 2006 Sooners have a 10- or 20-year reunion that some players will certainly show no matter what the obstacle if they know that Latimer is going to be back.
Replacing two-thirds of your starting linebacker corps would normally be a cause for concern, but at Oklahoma it is a challenge to find out who the next great linebacker is going to be.
"I am as excited as I have ever been. I'm looking forward to getting these players in the meeting room and out on the practice field," said Venables. "One, because I know there is a lot of work to be done. Guys like Rufus and Zach you could tell them something one time and they could get it done on the field. Whether it was checks and adjustments, making the calls or just getting the front and the defense set up the right way. I don't take that for granted. Without having a guy who can do that every single play, you are risking a lot of mistakes. So we have a lot of work to do in that regard, and finding who has the ability to do that under pressure and do it at the highest level of consistency that we need on defense.
"I am really excited about the group of guys because I am really like the talent," Venables continued. "I like the ability, I like the toughness, the character, the instincts and I like their playmaking ability. We don't have a lot of depth, but I really feel like we have a really good, strong group of players that maybe bring a little more physical nature to the table than what we have had the last two years. We have missed that in the interior of our defense. Just being able to rip somebody's head off. To be able to squeeze and condense running lanes, and constrict running lanes, and just being an explosive tackle for loss type of defense. We think we have a group that can be more effective as blitzers and making plays on their side of the line of scrimmage. We think they can be really effective in that regard too.
"They are a hungry group and they all really have good football minds," Venables continued. "They are a competitive group, but they have a great chemistry about them too. They really have a great deal of respect for one another. I like the competition.We may be just two-deep across the board and that is it, but that two-deep is strong, talented and competitive. Those are ingredients to have a really strong group."
The key for the Sooners will be finding that guy in the middle that can anchor the defense.
"I think the transition of Mike Reed (6-3, 245) will tell you the direction that we need to go in," said Venables. "Just how quickly he picks up the defensive terminology, his comfort level and where he is at mentally at the end of the spring will be really important on how we progress through the summer and fall. What I like about this group of guys — or at least with a number of them — is the ability to play different linebacker positions. Curtis (Lofton) has played inside and out. Ryan Reynolds has played inside and out. Lewis Baker has played both outside linebacker positions. Demarrio (Pleasant) has played inside and out. So I like the group of guys that we have. We are not really deep, and that obviously is always a concern. Knock on wood — staying healthy will be huge, but it is a high-quality group of players."
Finding a great WILL (weakside) linebacker to replace Alexander will be a top priority in the spring. Sophomore Ryan Reynolds (6-1, 237) will get first crack at it. Reynolds was expected to crack the starting lineup at linebacker last season before he tore his ACL in a 7-on-7 offseason drill. He is a tremendous athlete and returned from the injury ahead of schedule. Reynolds is a very intelligent player who, if healthy, stands a great chance to earn the starting job out of the spring.
"He was totally released toward the end of the season and bowl practice," said Venables. "I thought he looked really good. I tried not to overload him during bowl preparation, but he handled everything really well. What I liked about him during that time was that he was very physical, had no hesitation about him and mentally I felt he was really far along.
"Physically, Ryan really packs a punch. As long as there is no swelling or anything like that with the knee — which there hasn't been — then I expect a strong performance and no limitations this spring for him. There is a lot of time since the bowl game and spring ball to get started too, and during that time Ryan will work hard in our off-season program and get in great condition."
Reynolds realizes that he gets a new start in the spring, and just getting a chance to get back on the practice field at the end of practice and during bowl preparation gives him more confidence going into the spring.
"It was so great to just get back on the field toward the end of the season," said Reynolds at the Fiesta Bowl. "I was a little unsure of my knee when I first went back out at practice, but every day I got more confidence in it and now I know that it is fine. I am looking forward to the spring. I am going to have the offseason to get into the weight room and get bigger and strong and, of course, get more rehab on my knee. I know I am going to be totally healthy in the spring and I can't wait for it to start."
Coach Venables admits that he tosses-and-turns at night trying to figure out where to line guys up. Every night he has a number of different combinations that runs through his head and he is anxious to see which combination works on the field.
"At SAM I am going to start out with Lewis Baker (6'2, 222). He is a very explosive and mature player for us, who also has proven to cover very well," said Venables. "Lewis can really strike you and he can blitz very well and that is not something that every linebacker that we have can do. However, Lewis is crafty at it and understands that it takes more than just bull rushing in there and going 100 miles per hour.
"Curtis Lofton (6-0, 235) will also get a good opportunity there along with Demarrio Pleasant (6-2, 231). Curtis is a very talented player who is one of the better tacklers on our defense. He packs a great punch when he tackles and he is a very physical player for us. I was very pleased with his progress and with his understanding of our defense. I expect Curtis to play a much bigger role with our defense in the spring and next season. Curtis can also play the MIKE and the WILL."
"Demarrio injured his finger and even though he continued to play, for the most part it limited what he could do for us," Venables continued. "Demarrio has showed the ability to make big plays for us in the past, but he needs to become more consistent with his assignments and needs to improve his awareness on the field. I fully expect Demarrio to have a good spring and have a big senior year for us."
Pleasant suffered a torn tendon in a finger in the Iowa State game and that opened the door for Lofton to start the rest of the way. Lofton didn't disappoint finishing with 37 tackles last season.
After redshirt years, it will also be interesting to see how redshirt freshmen Brandon Crow (6-1, 227) and Jeremy Beal (6-4, 254) fit into the scheme of things this spring.
"I think both of them have good futures with us," said Venables. "Jeremy is going to get a look at defensive end as well this spring as we try to find a way to put our best players on the field. He was awfully good at that position in high school as well. He was very explosive and showed good short-area quickness. He plays extremely hard and he has great natural strength.
"Brandon has good quickness and he is explosive. He worked hard this past year and put on some weight and got stronger. He will really hit you and we will work him both outside and in."
Beal worked in the middle most of the time when at linebacker, and Crow can play both the WILL and SAM. Sophomore Lamont Robinson improved once he moved to the middle linebacker spot. This spring will be another opportunity for him to show that he is ready to contribute on the field.
Enid, Okla., native Austin Box was considered the top prospect in the state this past year and the No. 1 safety prospect in the country, according to Scout.com. OU recruited Box as an outside linebacker and that is where he played in the U.S. Army All-American Game in January. Box graduated from high school early and will go through spring football and learn both the WILL and the SAM.
Another freshman that the coaches will be working with for the first time in the spring is Altus, Okla. freshman Daniel Tabon. Tabon was part of the 2006 recruiting class, but spent the fall working on his academic studies at OU, earning the opportunity to join the football team for the spring.
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