With three of four starters to replace–and productive starters, at that–Oklahoma’s linebacking corps deserves its place atop the areas of concerns for this season. Between Eric Striker, Dom Alexander and Devante Bond, the Sooners are losing about a quarter of their tackles, nearly 40 percent of their tackles for loss and about 30 percent of their sacks from a year ago.
As of now, we can call two of the three openings locks. Tay Evans (6-2, 242 pounds) will typically line up inside towards the weak side of the offensive formation opposite from three-year starter Jordan Evans. Bond’s spot as the JACK linebacker in OU’s 3-4 scheme will go to Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (6-2, 245), a potential nightmare coming off the edge and in keeping track of his assignments.
There's still that a gigantic hole left by Striker at SAM linebacker that is hard to get past.
Mike Stoops’ version of the 3-4 defense asks a lot of the SAM, who generally lines up on the outside edge of the formation towards the strong side of the field. The SAM needs to be able to blitz, drop into coverage, take on run blockers and track down ball carriers in space to the wide side of the field. In the context of Mike’s scheme, a strong SAM LB affords valuable versatility against the spread.
Striker’s ability to get after quarterbacks made him a household name in college football. By the time he finished at OU, he had developed adequate skills in coverage and held up well enough against the run to make him more than just a pure GATA. In fact, Striker's flexibility arguably enhanced his effectiveness as a pass rusher since Mike could disguise his blitzes more often.
At this point, the two names that keep coming up as the most likely replacements for Striker are both newcomers: junior college transfer Kapri Doucet and five-star freshman Caleb Kelly.
In theory, Kelly would be the pick. His athleticism fits the position well when it comes to playing in space.
Yet, aside from just being young, Kelly’s build (6-3, 221 pounds) raises legitimate concerns about stopping the run. Striker’s quickness and compact frame helped offset his lack of size. Although Kelly will eventually develop into a beast with time in OU’s training program, the lanky freshman might struggle with the physicality of bigger opponents this season.
Honestly, Doucet (6-2, 225 pounds) isn’t that much better than Kelly from a physical standpoint. Classified as a junior, Doucet does have a couple years on the freshman phenom, which might mean something in terms of physical maturity. On the other hand, no one will mistake the two in terms of talent and upside.
Maybe one of the other LBs on the roster such as Ricky DeBerry can work his way into the mix. Maybe Mike decides OU’s defense is best off running nickel personnel almost exclusively with nickelback Will Johnson on the field in place of a SAM.
As of now, though, the smart bet is that Kelly just proves too good to keep off the field. It might not come immediately to start the season, but it seems likely that we’ll see Kelly in the starting lineup by the end of it.