A year ago at this time, Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Curtis Bolton was heading into his fifth season as a lightly-used pass-rush specialist with an extensive history of injuries.
Bolton shocked OU fans and pundits alike when he won a starting job at inside linebacker during preseason camp. He continued to surprise by keeping the job all year. In fact, Bolton arguably turned into OU’s most valuable defensive player, finishing second on the team in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss.
Who are the candidates on this year’s OU squad who could enjoy their own breakout year? Here are three to watch on both defense and offense.
Jeremiah Criddell, DB
Is Criddell a safety or a cornerback? The answer could go a long way toward determining if the blue-chip Californian has the opportunity to make a name for himself this season.
Safety has been a mess for the Sooners lately, culminating in last season’s long-running clown show. For the returnees, no one should feel like his place in the playing rotation is secure.
Criddell could fit in as a corner if it was decided OU needed him there. However, he appears destined for safety at his size (6-1, 185 pounds). Assuming he dives in headfirst from the time he gets to Norman in June, Criddell could lock up a spot in the starting lineup on the back end by the middle of the 2019 season.
Brendan Radley-Hiles, (hopefully) CB
Far be it from me to doubt Ruffin McNeill’s sincerity. However, one can only hope the then-interim DC was blowing smoke in the fall when he took exception to the idea of moving Bookie from safety. At any rate, here’s to hoping Alex Grinch and Roy Manning have other ideas.
I asked Ruffin McNeill straight up if there’s been any discussion about moving Bookie to corner.— George Stoia III (@GeorgeStoia) November 13, 2018
He looked shock I would ask such a thing.
“No. Bookie is a safety. He is a safety.”
There were moments when you could see what made No. 44 such a highly-regarded recruit in the 2018 class. Mostly, he looked like a square peg in a fulfilling-a-recruiting-promise-to-start hole as a safety. The situation came to an ugly head versus the West Virginia Mountaineers in the last game of the year when lanky receiver David Sills abused him working out of the slot.
The arrival of Grinch and Manning offers Bookie a chance to exorcise those freshman demons by allowing him to play his natural position. He can make a fresh start as an ace cover man and shore up a position that is long on experience and short on difference-makers.
DaShaun White, LB
OU has spent too long flailing to make it work at inside linebacker. Recruiting for the position withered under former assistant Tim Kish – too many stopgaps and projects, not enough sure things. Fortunately for the Sooners, Kish bequeathed a prototype LB to them in White.
If he had enrolled early in 2018, White might have shaken up the linebacker room. He still appeared in every contest as it was, primarily getting burn on special teams. He also generated buzz for his all-around game and ability to cover over the middle of the field.
As things currently stand, it just makes too much sense to plug in White at MIKE LB and let Kenneth Murray do more chasing from the WILL position. On its face, that sounds like the best duo the Sooners have had at inside linebacker in ages.
Charleston Rambo, WR
Rambo’s touchdown catch in the Orange Bowl set tongues wagging across the country – about the throw from Kyler Murray. Even so, the game stood out for Rambo as his first real introduction to the masses beyond appearances on all-name teams. Playing most of the second half for an injured Marquise Brown, Rambo grabbed three balls for 74 yards and the aforementioned TD, the first of his career.
Rambo will have plenty of competition coming up behind him in the form of a loaded group of freshman wideouts. He’ll start the year as the leading candidate to step in for Hollywood at Z receiver, though. The bet here is that the third-year sophomore will play well in a role that sees him grow into OU’s best deep threat.
In other words, if Jadon Haselwood, Trejan Bridges and Theo Wease unseat Rambo, it will be because they’re too good to keep off the field.
Tyrese Robinson, OG
OU is sustaining massive losses on the offensive line following the departures of four starters. They include right guard Dru Samia, who flourished during his senior year and developed into an All-Big 12 selection.
Robinson has the inside track to fill Samia’s starting spot in 2019. In fact, it doesn’t look like much of a competition at this point.
After redshirting in 2017, Robinson garnered limited playing time last year. When he did get in the game, he was a bully. For a player who tips the scales at more than 330 pounds, he has an extraordinary ability to move around in the trenches and bury opposing defenders.
It won’t take long for pundits to start talking about Robinson and his likely running mate Marquis Hayes the way they did about the guard combo of Samia and Ben Powers.
Brayden Willis, TE/H-Back
Willis arrived on campus last year billed as a project. That didn’t stop him from working his way onto the field in all but one game. (Granted, he only caught one pass all year, but, well, details.)
With Grant Calcaterra holding down the Y receiver position, which is essentially a flex tight end, Willis will need to find a new route to the lineup. He could get a shot in the role played by Carson Meier last season in heavier personnel groupings. Putting a bigger receiving threat than Meier in that spot would give defensive coordinators yet another dimension to worry about.
WR Theo Wease, WR Jadon Haselwood, WR Trejan Bridges, OG Marquis Hayes, OT Brey Walker, OT Adrian Ealy, H-back Jeremiah Hall, S Delarrin Turner-Yell