I'll be honest, this is the position I've been most excited about in our spring preview series. Most of that excitement is due to one guy, Ronnell Lewis, but it's also due to the fact that OU has a ton of talent at the LB spot and almost all of that talent is young talent. The defensive system OU runs is designed to funnel most plays to the LB spot so this position is arguably the most important to the success of our defense. Normally there would be cause for concern when you're only returning one starter at the most important position on your defense. However, what we lost in experience will be countered by the significant increase in speed and athleticism. One of the main challenges this spring is how and more importantly where will Coach Venables slot all of that talent. Early reports out of spring practice have most of the LBs working at multiple positions so outside of Travis Lewis at WLB, it would appear the other two spots are wide open. The system OU runs is designed for the WLB to be the "star" of the defense and Travis has clearly excelled at that role over the past two years. So it's certainly no surprise that he has a spot and given the talent on campus at the LB spot it's equally no surprise that there is an intense competition ongoing for the other two spots.
Check out the analysis and a projection on probable starters after the jump.
As discussed above, two of the three starting spots are currently up for grabs so we'll give you the most likely three to lock down a starting job based on early reports out of spring practice and gut feel.
WLB - Travis Lewis 6'2"-232-JR
MLB - Austin Box 6'2"-200-JR
SLB - Ronnell Lewis 6'2"-234-SO
I started this post detailing my excitement for one Ronnell Lewis. I've posted this video on the site before, but frankly it never gets old so please enjoy (the second hit is definitely my favorite).
Ronnell Lewis big hits vs. Stanford (via jw2000)
I also really enjoy this one. Ronnell has been laying the wood since middle school! Gotta feel really bad for that other kid though.
Josh Gets Leveled by Ronnell Lewis! Biggest Middle School Football Hit Ever!!!! (via theycallmerylo)
I haven't been this excited about an OU player since AD was making a mockery of defenses his freshman year. This kid just plays with a viciousness that we haven't seen since possibly "Superman" Roy Williams. Even with his limited playing time last year, there was never a moment when he was on the field that I wasn't aware. He just has that kind of a presence and I really think the OU coaches struck gold with this former 8-man footballer.
I can remember reading three years ago about a former RB turned LB recruit that OU had stole from Nebraska late in the recruiting process. That kid turned out to be Travis Lewis who has had two of the best years to start a career in OU history. Even he has admitted that last year was a little bit disappointing, but coming off breaking The Boz's freshman tackles record and playing for the national championship the year before it would have been difficult for last season to be anything but a disappointment. With the departure of Reynolds and Clayton, Travis is clearly the leader of this unit and it's a role I think he will openly embrace.
Austin Box is a OK kid who at this point in his career is unfortunately best known for getting hurt and relieving himself in public places (not a good combo). This is a gut feel pick on my part in terms of him being a starter. I just think Venables wants someone with experience in the middle and according to spring practice reports Box, Ronnell, and Daniel Franklin are working primarily in the middle. So of those three, Box is by far and away the most experienced and worked as the primary backup to Reynolds at the MLB spot last year as well.
I think a lot of people, including myself, feel the lineup with the most potential includes T.Lewis, R.Lewis, and Tom Wort. However, in a recent interview ($) with Travis Lewis he talked about how Wort was working primarily with him at the WLB spot. This led me to believe that Venables is grooming Wort to take over for Travis should he likely decide to leave after this year. As I mentioned above, the WLB is the "star" of the OU defense and Wort has been nothing but praised by the coaches since he arrived on campus. So that is the thinking behind Wort not being listed as a starter, at least for now anyway.
WLB - Tom Wort 6'0"-220-RS FR
MLB - Daniel Franklin 6'2"-219-RS SO
SLB - Jaydan Bird 6'1"-227-SO
As unlikely as it seems, Tom Wort has seemingly become a fan favorite without ever having played a down thus far. I think a lot of it has to do with his story which includes being raised in England, eventually moving to Texas, and becoming a TX high school football star having never played the game growing up. Or it might have something to do with how the kid plays the game. Check out some highlights.
Tom Wort #21 - New Braunfels High School - 2008 Football Highlights (via bvwcad)
The kid just seeks out contact and has a great nose for the football. He was seriously challenging for playing time this time last year before suffering an ACL tear during practice. By all accounts, his recovery is ahead of schedule and he's already been cleared to participate in spring practice. He's reportedly being held out of some drills just as a precaution, but this kid has a reputation of being a workout warrior who never wants to take a play off. He's he kind of blue collar type of player that OU fans will absolutely fall in love with.
Daniel Franklin is a kid out of GA who hasn't seen the field much in his two years on campus. However, he had his most extensive playing time last year in the Sun Bowl against Stanford and played quite well. He's a kid who I've heard Venables talk about a lot, but for whatever reason just couldn't work his way into the rotation the last two years. He's obviously still very young (only a RS SO) and has undoubtedly gained invaluable experience these past couple years. He's another kid that has a great reputation in the weight room and the results are apparent in the size he's put on since first arriving in Norman. Given Box's injury history, he could see the field quite a bit this year and regardless he expects to see plenty of time on special teams.
Jaydan Bird is a kid out of KS who spent all of his playing time last year on special teams. He's a very athletic and versatile player which is evident by reports out of spring practice that he has been working at all three LB spots. As you'll see in the highlights below, he really loves the big hit (what LB doesn't) and has better than average closing speed for a kid his size as well. He's another guy I know Venables really likes and one I've heard Stoops mention by name on numerous occasions.
Jaydan Bird's Jr. Highlights (via shervon1st)
Corey Nelson 6'0"-210-FR
Most OU fans will recognize this name due to his signing day drama. At one time proclaiming himself "Mr. A&M" apparently wasn't enough to keep him from switching his commitment on signing day and pledging his official commitment to OU. Given some of the things I read on A&M message boards that day, he's sure didn't make any friends down in College Station that day. Regardless, the reason there was so much drama was because he's extremely talented and was one of the highest rated LB recruits in the country. I expect him to redshirt this year, but if he does get on the field it will likely be limited to special teams. Most young LBs initially struggle with OU's system so he would be well served to use the year to learn the system and prepare for 2011.
Aaron Franklin 6'1"-206-FR
Franklin is a guy OU offered early and then unfortunately suffered an injury (ACL) late in his junior year. He's still in the process of regaining confidence in his knee so he is also a likely redshirt candidate in 2010. Before the injury he was a very explosive player who some schools were recruiting as a safety, so the kid is obviously an excellent athlete. Were it not for all the talent OU already has at safety, I'd suggest a position switch could be in his future. However, I think OU will try and put some weight on him this year and give time to regain his confidence in that knee.
Rashod Favors 6'1"-225-FR
Favors might not be the most talented kid in this incoming class, but he's also probably not going to be out worked by anyone either. He's the kind of player who always seems to get more out of his talent than the next guy. Probably doesn't have the speed to play either outside spot so will obviously project as a MLB. I've always liked the look of this kid and I think he's a kid that will really take to the coaching he will receive at OU. Expect him to be an over achiever throughout his career in Norman.
As always, anything I missed or anything you'd like to add feel free to do so in the comments.