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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Curtis Bolton, Kenneth Murray fortify defense

Inside linebacker has grown into a position of strength for OU.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2018 season, the big question facing the Oklahoma Sooners’ linebacking corps appeared to be how junior Caleb Kelly would handle a move inside.

Through two games, it hasn’t made much of a difference. That’s not Kelly’s fault. Instead, fifth-year senior Curtis Bolton has claimed the WILL position for his own.

Bolton’s emergence and the development of sophomore Kenneth Murray have created an imposing tandem for the Sooners at inside linebacker, which is now a position of strength for OU’s improved defense.

Bolton making the most of final season

At 6-0, 218 pounds, Bolton is built in the mold of predecessor Emmanuel Beal.

Beal played solid ball overall in 2017, compiling 95 tackles, including seven stops behind the line of scrimmage. As a two-star recruit out of junior college, Beal made the most of his limited talent. His play illustrated why he was recruited to OU in the first place, though.

Beal did an adequate job of making his reads and hitting his run fits. He covered well in the middle of the field. However, he struggled to shed blocks and had a tendency to get washed out by opposing blockers.

Bolton possesses Beal’s coverage skills; he is also proving to be the superior player against the run. On to of all that, Bolton’s knack for getting to the quarterback expands defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ options on passing downs. The Californian can drop back into coverage, blitz from a variety of angles, come after the QB on a delayed pressure or even take on a spy role versus scramblers.

Bolton has even had a hand in OU’s renaissance on special teams.

Stoops can count on Bolton to hold his own on all three downs. The veteran has come into his own in his final season as a Sooner. If he can stay healthy for an entire year – a challenge in the past for Bolton – he will challenge for all-conference honors.

Murray: Big 12’s best?

NCAA Football: UCLA at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

While WILL was a mystery prior to the season, no one had any question who would man the MIKE.

Murray displayed worlds of potential playing the position for the first time in 2017. As a sophomore, he’s starting to show signs of growing into a monster in the middle of the field.

From strictly a production standpoint, Murray got off to a slow start as he failed to even register a tackle versus Florida Atlantic. That turned around in a hurry, though.

Murray was OU’s most active defender a week ago versus UCLA. He showcased pass-rushing skills of his own, notching one of the Sooners’ six sacks. He did most of his damage chasing down Bruin ball carriers on his way to nine tackles.

Murray’s play versus the pass against UCLA really stood out as a strength. He showed fantastic closing ability on short and intermediate routes, putting him in position to affect receivers or shut plays down for minimal gain after the catch.

On his current trajectory, Murray could turn into the best defensive player in the Big 12 by season’s end.