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2009 Oklahoma Season Preview: Linebackers

July 24, 2009

To paraphrase Marlo Stanfield, the biggest issue facing the Oklahoma linebacking corps in 2009 “sounds like one of those good problems.” Namely, how is defensive coordinator Brent Venables going to find enough time to keep all his young bucks happy?

Look at the middle spot. Ryan Reynolds returns after his promising 2008 campaign was cut short by a torn knee ligament. The fifth-year senior carries himself like Venables’ proxy on the field, calling the defenses and overseeing alignments. More than just his leadership, though, Reynolds had grown into the fearsome linebacker last season that he was projected to be as a five-star recruit. He was on pace for more than 110 tackles in ’08 before he went down, and his pass coverage had improved markedly. Although Reynolds is reportedly full speed heading into fall camp, can he stay healthy for a full season? Definitely, Maybe.
Sooner Nation seems to have latched on to the theory that Reynolds’ season-ending injury in the Red River Shootout doomed the Crimson and Cream, as OU lacked a capable backup and struggled to stop Colt McCoy and the Longhorn offense from that point on. By the end of the year, however, the reserves who had been pressed into action not only proved capable. They looked ready to challenge for the starting gig. Enid’s own Austin Box stepped in late in the season and played phenomenally, particularly in pass defense. When Box went down with a knee injury in the Sooners’ final regular season contest at Oklahoma State, OU turned to 25-year-old Mike “The Bricklayer” Balogun. The hard-hitting ex-construction worker gave a valiant effort in the national title game, logging six tackles.
Then, there’s the weak-side linebacker spot. Travis Lewis led OU in tackles as a redshirt freshman in ’08 with 144, earning Associated Press Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year and All-Big 12 first team honors. Lewis returns for his second season as a starter gunning for a spot on the All-American team and the Butkus Award. If all goes well this year, the San Antonio native could be headed to the NFL after the season.
Senior Keenan Clayton will man the strong-side linebacker position for the second season in a row. Early in his career, Clayton was billed as the next great Sooner safety–so good, in fact, that he started the first two games of his redshirt freshman season in 2006. Then, he disappeared for two years. When he re-surfaced in ’08, OU fans found out Clayton wasn’t the next great safety, but he was a pretty solid linebacker. Clayton’s background as a defensive back is a great asset for the Sooner D, as Venables can leave him on the field in passing and running situations. In a league loaded with spread offenses, that’s a huge benefit.

J.R. Bryant, a highly regarded recruit from Georgia by way of Garden City (Kan.) Community College, will be backing Clayton up. To be honest, the fact that Bryant didn’t make first team last year really surprised me. The OU staff brought in Bryant prior to ’08 to shore up a linebacking corps decimated by departures. With a year under his belt in the OU system, expect to see more of Bryant on the field this year, possibly as a pass rush specialist.

While the Sooners are already loaded with experience at linebacker, coach Bob Stoops and his staff may have a hard time keeping a duo of talented freshmen off the field this year. British import Tom Wort, an early enrollee, created a stir in spring practice with ferocious hits. There has even been talk he could see action at middle linebacker right away. Kansan Jaydan Bird wowed the staff as well, so much so that he earned a spot on the second string behind Lewis.
The combination of defensive linemen and linebackers in Norman give OU the best front seven in college football this season. As strong as the D-line is, the linebacking crew is the strongest unit on the team.