There are a lot of unknowns for Oklahoma headed into this season. The Sooners have a new head coach, almost an entirely new group of skill position players on offense and a new defensive scheme. And despite the unknowns at linebacker, it could actually end up being an area of strength for Oklahoma. Despite the loss of last years leading tackler Jordan Evans, OU returns several key contributors at linebacker and also adds a few fresh faces that could make an early impact.
When asked about the linebackers at media day, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops named six guys that he plans to use as his primary group. The six he named were seniors Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Emmanuel Beal, junior Curtis Bolton, sophomore Caleb Kelly and a pair of freshmen in Jon-Michael Terry and Kenneth Murray. Some notable names that Stoops did not mention were Ricky DeBerry, Mark Jackson Jr., Levi Draper, Addison Gumbs and K’Jakyre Daley. Stoops said he had high hopes for some of the younger players in the future but that many of them “just aren’t there yet.” While many of them will undoubtedly mature into key contributors over the next few years, let’s take a look at what we can expect from the six players that Stoops said will probably get the majority of the reps at linebacker this season.
Kelly was the highest rated recruit in OU’s 2016 class and the No. 3 outside linebacker in the country coming out of high school. He played in 11 games as a true freshman and tallied 36 tackles, and he was arguably Oklahoma’s best defensive player in the win over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops has indicated that Kelly will primarily be used as the SAM linebacker in the 4-3 defense and the WILL linebacker in the nickel package.
Kelly’s ability to read the quarterback allows him to excel in a variety of roles on defense. He will not be leaned on quite as much as a pass rusher compared to the final few games of 2016, but he’ll be a huge key to defending both the run and the pass because of his size, athleticism and ability in coverage. Kelly is one of the best all-around athletes on OU’s entire roster, so expect to see him utilized in a plethora of ways this season.
It can almost be argued that Obo doesn’t really belong in this discussion. In the 4-3, the senior will play a role much different than that of any of the other guys on this list. At the JACK position, he’ll be more of a defensive end on a lot of snaps. However, Stoops can utilize him in a number of ways — either as a hand-in-the-groud guy or a stand-up edge rusher.
A starter in all 13 games a season ago, Okoronkwo has already established himself as one of the most feared pass rushers in the country. When asked what he thought of this years group of linebackers Stoops said, “Obo is in a category of his own.” His nine sacks ranked second in the Big 12 and earned him second-team all conference honors in 2017
The switch to the 4-3 means there will be more defenders rushing the quarterback on every play, which will open up more opportunities for Okornokwo to add to his sack total. Look for him to follow up his breakout junior season with another monstrous campaign this year.
After replacing the retired Tay Evans at one of the two middle linebacker spots in 2016, we could see Beal as a starter at the WILL linebacker position in 2017. The junior college transfer started nine games for the Sooners alongside Jordan Evans last season, and his 81 tackles were the second-most on the team behind the departed captain. Mike Stoops says of Beal and sophomore outside linebacker Caleb Kelly, “Both players are night and day ahead of where they were a year ago at this time. They’re both totally different players, playing faster and more aggressive and understanding their position so much better.”
A former four-star recruit out of Victory Christian in Tulsa, Terry may be the most likely starter at the MIKE position for the UTEP game. He recorded a whopping 175 tackles in 12 games in his senior season at Victory, and he also hauled in 56 catches as a receiver. His 6’2”, 240-pound frame is enough to make him a real difference-maker in interior run game, but he’s also quick and athletic enough to excel at other responsibilities. Terry redshirted last season and appears poised to be a significant contributor on defense this season. Look for Terry to play substantial snaps this season regardless of whether or not he is named the starter.
A true freshman out of Missouri City, Texas, Murray is an excellent combination of size and speed. He is listed at 6’2”, 242 pounds and he runs a 4.55 40-yard dash. Murray posted 104 tackles including 15 tackles for loss in 12 games as a high school senior. He moved between linebacker positions throughout summer workouts, but Stoops says that he wants to allow Murray to get comfortable at MIKE linebacker going forward. He may not be the starter at the beginning of the year, but Murray could be a future star and is a very capable replacement if anyone goes down with an injury.
Bolton has played primarily on special teams during his time in Norman but will likely see some time at linebacker in 2017. He tallied 11 tackles in 12 games on special teams last year including a career-high three solo tackles in the Sooners’ 38-17 victory over Kansas State. Mike Stoops has praised Bolton’s ability to play all three linebacker positions, and it looks like he could see time at all three this season. Bolton is not currently slated as a starter, but Stoops said that he plans to use him as a strong side linebacker in some sets.
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