In what you'll notice to be a common theme among the Sooners front seven for 2012, there isn't a lot of experience to inspire much confidence. Who knows, maybe all the players stepping from reserve roles into starting ones will raise their play and it won't be an issue. But given how many spots the OU front seven will have these types of players it seems fairly unrealistic there won't be some growing pains.
One thing there can be no questions about is the fact that it will be vital for Tom Wort to step into the leadership role on this defense vacated by Travis Lewis. There will be others to help him fill the void to be sure, guys like Demontre Hurst and and Aaron Colvin among others, but Wort has the kind of infectious on-field personality this defense could respond well to.
The first and most obvious point to be made is by not including Tony Jefferson, we're clearly assuming he makes the switch back to that more traditional safety role. Obviously only time will tell whether or not that proves to be true, but for the purposes of this preview we're predicting that it will be.
Corey Nelson has the look of a very talented player, but is in the unenviable position of having to replace a four year starter at the WLB in Travis Lewis. That said, he seems like a perfect fit for the role considering his speed and athleticism. He can make plays all over the field, which is exactly what this defensive scheme asks the weakside backer to do. I mean it's no coincidence that Lewis was the leading tackler on this team for four straight years. What Nelson will have to do however is be disciplined so that opposing offenses cannot exploit his aggressiveness.
We talked about Wort and is expected of him heading into 2012, but it bears mentioning that Wort's game seems much more suited to that WLB position. If OU were to move him, which they never will, out of the MLB spot it would allow for a lineup I feel would be much more suited to what the coaches want to do on defense. Imagine Wort at WLB, the bigger Jaydan Bird (or even Kellen Jones who the coaches seem to really like) at MLB, and Nelson at that SLB/Roy-back spot. Am I crazy or doesn't that make a lot more sense than the smashing a square peg into a round hole that these defensive coaches seem to do year after year after year?
Let me be clear that Ibiloye as a starter is not my personal preference. It's not meant as a slight to Ibby, in fact I think he could play a valuable role for this defense against run heavy offenses. The problem is when he is in the game, Venables routinely asks him to drop into pass coverage and he's just not quick enough to stay with the smaller, faster players they continually ask him to cover. I think Ibby being a senior gives him an advantage with the coaches that, at least for the first part of the season, earns him the starting role.
At 6'1" 240, Favors is another guy who seems much more suited to that MLB role. On more than one occasion, I've read positive things about him and how he's performed in practice. But 2012 will be the start of his third year on campus and he'll yet to have seen anything even close to significant playing time.
Shannon is a guy the coaches and players were raving about during the bowl practices. If he can continue that kind of progress, then he could be a guy that shares time with Ibiloye at that Roy-back spot.
Aaron Franklin is another guy who the coaches have been complimentary of and after working his way back from a serious knee injury coming out of h.s., he's reportedly regained the same explosiveness he had prior to the injury. He has the same kind of speed, maybe even more so, that Nelson has which at the LB spot is a big asset.
Daniel Franklin will be a senior in 2012 and while he's played a role on special teams, he's yet to really see any significant playing time and don't expect that to change next year. If Venables would play an actual 4-3, Franklin would make a perfect strong side linebacker but with a 13 year track record of the same defensive scheme we know that's never happening.
Lindley redshirted in 2011 and is yet another candidate for Venables beloved hybrid LB/S role.
Bird will be a senior and will likely continue to see time on special teams and is likely to share the primary backup to Wort at MLB with Kellen Jones. Bird actually got some snaps on offense at fullback in the final two games of the season. Jones transferred really late from Michigan and was expected to redshirt, but wound up playing in almost every game primarily on kickoff coverage put also in some limited snaps on defense.
Aside from the senior experience at the DT position, it's odd how similar this preview reads to the defensive line preview from yesterday. No shortage of talent, but not a ton of experience in the guys stepping into starting roles and virtually none in terms of the depth behind the starters. Just like with the defensive line, what's abundantly clear in putting together this preview is that this is another unit that very much needs to remain healthy.