Heading into the season, there were questions abound for Oklahoma and its defense. And digging deeper, there were a bevy of questions regarding the Sooners and their linebackers.
Was OU going to use them? Would Tim Kish last beyond this season? How would OU be able to recruit the position going forward?
The answers? Yes. Definitely. No problem. The linebacker position made a triumphant return to OU this season. And all doubts about Kish have quietly gone away. On the recruiting front, OU already has three linebacker commits and is in good position to get one or two more.
“They’ve been huge for us,” senior cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “They’ve made a lot of plays. They’re some of the most productive players on our tea this year. Those guys have definitely stepped up this year.”
Part of that was a schematic change. In going from a 4-3 front to a primarily 3-3 or 3-4 front it brought the position back into the limelight. But it never would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for the production of the group.
That production has been spurred by young guys more than ever. Senior Corey Nelson was the captain and leader of the defense until a pectoral injury ended his season in October.
After Nelson’s departure, it has been up to sophomores and freshmen to carry the day. Despite some growing pains, the group has only gotten stronger throughout the season.
“Just putting them in position to make plays,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Structurally it’s totally different.”
Sophomore linebacker Frank Shannon leads the team in tackles, while freshman Dominique Alexander is second despite not playing for much of the first month of the season.
Shannon 85 tackles with two sacks, an interception and seven tackles for loss. Alexander has 75 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble and safety.
It’s not a shock the second half of games have gone a lot better than the first half. Because of their youth, halftime has been a lot about adjustments and doing the little things to get better. OU will need its linebackers to be ready to roll from the start in the AllState Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
“They’re both growing,” said Stoops about Shannon and Alexander. “I don’t think we have scratched the surface of where we can be. It still takes a while to adjust to games. We’re much better in the second half than we are in the first half. That goes to show a little bit of our inexperience.”
Shannon and Alexander have been the key guys for making tackles, while sophomore Eric Striker has a penchant for the big play. It started against Notre Dame when Striker made a huge hit to start the game, and he has rolled since then.
At least once or twice a game, Striker comes off the edge and makes a big hit or forces the quarterback to make a bad decision.
Striker has 43 tackles with 3.5 sacks and also had a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Oklahoma State. He is second on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.
There were questions about the defense and the linebackers, but Striker said they didn’t worry about other peoples’ expectations.
“It’s not like we had to prove something,” Striker said. “We always knew we could do it. Being a linebacker at Oklahoma, we take pride in that. Linebackers are necessary, and we are needed on the field.”
They’ll be needed, no doubt, Jan. 2 in New Orleans.