At this point in the year, it’s not entirely fair to refer to the young guns as ‘freshmen.’ Think back to the Houston game—seems like forever ago, right? It feels that way to the Sooners, too. An entire season’s-worth of ups, downs, and in-betweens have occurred since.
One such ‘freshman’ is linebacker Caleb Kelly, the five-star recruit out of Fresno, California. Kelly was recently named a Freshman All-American by Pro Football Focus, the preeminent football analytics website. “Kelly came on strong down the stretch,” PFF’s Steve Palazzolo wrote. He commended Kelly for “keeping the ball in front of him in coverage while finishing with a solid 70.6 grade against the run.” 70 is, according to PFF, above-average, which is all a coordinator could ask for from a freshman.
Here’s the thing, though: Kelly’s no average linebacker. The 6’3”, 221 lbs. west-coast product has moved the needle for coaches and fans alike. While the defense lacked toughness, physicality, and personality in the loss of Erik Striker and others, Kelly’s brand of football brings it all right back.
Both Bob and Mike Stoops have praised Kelly. Bob, in his weekly press conference, noted Kelly as one of the big risers in bowl practices.
Mike was more effusive in his praise:
“I think the sky’s the limit for him as a player,” he said. “He’s very multiple in what he can do. He has great range. As he physically develops I think he’ll be a tremendous player.”
He went on:
“I think you need to play, you need to be more physical with teams like [Auburn]. We didn’t—you know, our game plan wasn’t what it needed to be obviously against Ohio State, and we kind of just basically leaned on our best 11 players at that time. And that necessarily isn’t the case when you play a team that physical, and Auburn’s going to present that physicality that you’re going to see from guys like Ohio State.”
Put simply: Mike Stoops wants to work his defensive scheme around Kelly. One can’t help but think that, had Kelly been ready, his size and physicality could have helped in Will Johnson’s place against Houston and Ohio State.
Check out how Kelly zooms in for the tackle on this play:
This kind of edge pressure is special from a young linebacker:
Kelly is obviously a special brand of linebacker, one whose meteoric growth this season bodes well for the future. His numbers aren’t incredible—24 total tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack—but that’s more a function of the OU’s revolving door defense this season. Expect huge things from him next year.
With some consistency, just a liiiiiitle more weight (10-15 lbs. more, to be exact), and another offseason under his belt, Kelly could be just the Striker replacement the Sooners needed. The Sugar Bowl just might be his coming out party.