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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Caleb Kelly and the Future of the OU Defense

Kelly will lead the charge on a unit about to be infused with talent.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now, but the once-porous Oklahoma defense is about to get a real shot in the arm.

Jacob Phillips. Addison Gumbs. Kenneth Murray. Levi Draper. Sooner Squad ‘17 is going to make OU more talented at every position on the field, but none moreso than at linebacker. The Sooners came into 2016 with a unit in transition, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, as happened with players all over the defense, their plans for guys like Will Johnson and Tay Evans just didn’t work out.

Oklahoma spent all season shuffling guys in, trying to find the right personnel. Its reluctance to start freshmen, even extremely talented ones, was evident. But Caleb Kelly finally earned the starter’s role, and jump-started the defensive renaissance OU will need to compete for a title next season.

His stats would be impressive even if you didn’t know he only got six starts. Thirty-six tackles, 3 for a loss. Two quarterback hurries. Three pass breakups. The hallmarks of a well-rounded role player.

But Kelly is going to be much more than that. Kelly’s defensive teammates were quick to praise him in the run-up to the Sugar Bowl. They, like the rest of us, have seen the hard-nosed intensity Kelly has brought to the defense, the strength and speed that will make him a menace off the edge. Kelly was the perfect compliment for Obo Okoronkwo—defenses all season had more or less ignored the OU pass rush, knowing Obo was the only player with any chance at the quarterback. But Kelly finally gave the Sooners the two-dimensional threat they’d needed all year.

Watch the way he and Obo combined to wreak havoc on the Auburn running game:

Or the way his speed disrupted even this simple short pass:

Opposing offenses will get cold sweats thinking about how to slow down the OU pass rush next year—which is not something that could be said about the team this season, at all.

Kelly’s Sugar Bowl performance has earned him universal acclaim from the Oklahoma media, as it should have. But no one who has watched him down the stretch was surprised by his gaudy bowl stats. The OU coaching staff told Kelly early on that he’d have to play like a veteran to be successful, and Kelly has met that challenge with gusto.

“Once I started,” he said after the Sugar Bowl, “that’s when it really clicked. Where, okay, I’m not a true freshman, I need to play like an older guy.”

That’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old kid. But obviously the staff knew he could handle it. Hopefully, Kelly’s ascendance will show the Stoops brothers that it’s okay to start young talent—sometimes talent really does outweigh experience.

Kelly gave the Sooners a huge and much-needed victory when he surprised the pundits and chose OU over Oregon and Notre Dame last year. Kelly came in knowing the Sooners would need more reinforcements to truly contend—and now help is on the way.

A unit that was a giant question mark in 2016 might be one of Oklahoma’s strongest positions, again, for years to come. Caleb Kelly is going to be a huge part of that.