For years, the Oklahoma Sooners made do at inside linebacker with combinations of high-effort athletes, green youngsters and emergency fill-ins from junior colleges.
But last year, MIKE LB Kenneth Murray developed into the Big 12’s defensive player of the year and a first-round selection in the NFL draft. LBs coach Brian Odom paired Murray with DaShaun White and Caleb Kelly at WILL to solidify OU’s ILBs as one of the better all-around groups in the nation. Meanwhile, the Sooners found a productive rotation outside at the RUSH position.
However, Kelly’s second major knee injury is forcing Odom to get creative this season. Here’s an overview of what is on the table at LB heading into 2020 and a projected depth chart for all three spots.
DaShaun White, Jr. - In a position group in flux, White is the one sure thing. His ability to cover makes him a prototype ILB in a spread-centric league like the Big 12. White seems to fit so well on the weak side, but need at MIKE could force him into action there.
Brian Asamoah, R-So. - Asamoah’s disappearance from the rotation at WILL LB in 2019 was odd. Through seven games, he tallied 19 tackles; he finished the season with just 23. Assuming he has left the defensive doghouse (or simply fell out of the primary rotation down the stretch in 2019), Asamoah could make for a useful WILL. He’s a solid, physical tackler who seems to fill gaps well.
David Ugwoegbu, So. - When last we saw Ugwoegbu, he was making a strong impression as an edge player in his rookie year. Fate intervened in the form of Kelly’s injury, forcing the athletic sophomore to swing inside.
Looking back at last season, moving Ugwoegbu to MIKE makes sense. Murray often flexed outside to the strength of formations, playing more like a SAM LB. Using Ugwoegbu that way would give the Sooners an additional pass-rushing threat who also has the size (6-4, 251 pounds) to handle lead blockers in the running game. Aside from his lack of familiarity with the position, the biggest downside is that Ugwoegbu can’t move and cover like your typical ILB in a spread-oriented defensive scheme.
Bryan Mead, R-Sr. - Coaches never seem to pass on a chance to talk up Mead, but the former walk-on is unlikely to have a major on-field role this season.
Robert Barnes, R-Jr. - Barnes needed to move away from safety, a position that never truly fit with his skill set. The lack of buzz about the veteran coming out of camp suggests the switch hasn’t really worked out.
Jamal Morris, R-Fr. - Another converted safety. Morris is tipping the scales at 210 pounds, so it seems unlikely he will be a factor in ‘20.
Shane Whitter, Fr. - An overlooked recruit nationally, Whitter would ideally get a year off to acclimate to college football. Circumstances may not allow that.
Brynden Walker, Fr. - See above. Very raw.
Jon-Michael Terry, R-Sr. - Prior to suffering a season-ending injury, JMT was a revelation in the RUSH position. He probably doesn’t have the ideal twitchiness that you’d like to see from an edge rusher, but his well-rounded game makes him an asset. Notably, opponents began exploiting the edge on the ground when JMT was out of the lineup.
Nik Bonitto, R-So. - Bonitto provided one of the most pleasant surprises of last season for the Sooners. With JMT sidelined, he turned into OU’s most reliable RUSH LB, racking up 6.5 tackles for loss on the season. He will remain a key part of the D in ‘20, even with JMT back.
Joseph Wete, R-Fr. - In the offseason, Wete added nearly 20 pounds to his lanky frame. That reduces the chances that he will pushed around mercilessly if called into action. Perhaps he can grow into a role as a third-down specialist this year.
MIKE - White
WILL - Asamoah
RUSH - JMT
MIKE - Ugwoegbu, Barnes, Mead, Walker
WILL - Whitter, Morris
RUSH - Bonitto, Wete
*The big concern is how quickly Ugwoegbu has gotten up to speed. If he is the starter, Alex Grinch has to know that opponents will look to exploit him in pass coverage.
Perhaps Ugwoegbu works in on third downs to start the year and becomes an every-down backer later in the season?
*JMT and Bonitto give the Sooners a really nice one-two punch at RUSH. Expect them to rotate often.
*Health will be of the utmost importance here, especially at the two interior positions.
*Freshman Reggie Grimes has been listed as a DE/OLB on OU’s roster (a distinction often reserved for a RUSH LB), but his body type all but ensures that his hand will be in the dirt in Grinch’s defense.