The story of OU's preseason practices has been junior college transfer Mike Balogun. The 25-year-old junior gave up football in high school and began working construction jobs. Since Balogun arrived on campus this summer, he has jetted up the depth chart. With Box expected to miss the first game of the season against Chattanooga, Balogun likely will start as the weakside linebacker. Venables also looks to be grooming Balogun as Reynolds' backup in the middle. While the coaching staff has raved about Balogun's performance so far, his play in the team's second preseason apparently illustrated that he remains a work in progress.
The defensive staff's emphasis on speed and coverage ability has moved them to put an array of hybrid linebacker-safeties all over the field, even on typical running downs. In fact, the Sooners' base defense probably will look more like a dime package in 2008. New starters at the outside spots Austin Box and Keenan Clayton are both converted safeties who were known as tough tacklers while they worked with the DBs. Likewise, defensive coordinator Brent Venables loves to walk "royback" Nic Harris up to the line of scrimmage in blitzing situations.
Returning starter Ryan Reynolds has moved over from the outside to the middle, replacing 2007 Big XII Defensive Player of the Year Curtis Lofton. Reynolds' extensive injury history clearly has taken a toll on his overall athleticism. Yet, the junior's skill set and run-stopping ability probably make him a better fit in the middle. Reynolds struggled in pass coverage situations last year, and his new role likely will have him focused more stuffing opponents' run game.
JR Bryant actually came in as the more highly regarded junior college transfer. However, the coaches have made little mention of Bryant so far, casting doubt on his ability to contribute this year. Redshirt freshman Travis Lewis also will back up Box and Clayton on the outside.
The smaller, quicker linebackers that populate OU's defense bear little resemblance to the likes of Rocky Calmus and Curtis Lofton. It's a scheme that lends itself well to creating turnovers and big plays, as well as providing extra coverage help for the secondary. In other conferences, like the Big Ten, such a shift could put the Sooner defense at a disadvantage against bigger, more physical opponents. Yet, with the growing popularity of the spread in the Big XII, it's a gamble that could pay dividends this year.
(Later This Week: Defensive Line)