If you were to pick the position group most likely to keep Oklahoma’s coaching staff up at night, it would have to be linebacker.
Sure, the Sooners have a budding star in Caleb Kelly on the outside at SAM. That doesn’t fix the potential issues on the interior. Not to mention, questions abound as to what happens when opponents start hitting them with traditional spread sets of four and five wide receivers.
Let's take a look at some of the key story lines at the position just one week after the start of preseason practices.
Competition at MIKE
Might as well start with arguably the biggest question mark on the entire team.
Inside linebackers coach Tim Kish is searching for a replacement for veteran standout Jordan Evans, and the auditions are down to redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry and rookie Kenneth Murray. (Kish has some explaining to do as to why these two are fighting for the gig with no credible competition from upperclassmen; alas, that's for another time.)
Not much separates the two from a physical standpoint. Both tip the scales around 240 pounds, which means they should have the size to hold up well against the run. Likewise, they have the athleticism to be decent in pass coverage.
Ultimately, this race seems destined to come down to understanding the responsibilities and nuances of the position. That probably favors JMT at this point, but it speaks to how highly the coaches think of Murray that he’s even in this position. It shouldn’t shock anyone if Murray eventually moves up to the first team this year.
Kish and Stoops could do both of them a favor if they figure out a way to simplify the position for the season, but it’s tough to say how realistic of an idea that is.
Sound the Beal
After being pressed into service by Tay Evans’ retirement last season, WILL linebacker Emmanuel Beal had a rough acclimation period. At 6-0, 218 pounds, he lacks the bulk to shed blockers easily and punish ball carriers.
He has enough agility to chase down plays from behind, however. He’s also a plus coverage player, which helps significantly in a league where teams look to take advantage of receivers coming out of the backfield.
All in all, Beal is a solid fit at inside linebacker in a spread-centric era. He’ll never be a star, but he should take a step forward based on the foundation built last season.
The D’s key
By the end of the ‘16 season, Kelly stood out as one of the most productive players on OU’s defense. He can play the run in space. He can handle tight ends in man coverage. He can also patrol the curl/flat area in zone, where his length and ability to cover ground quickly come into play.
The change in scheme to a four-man front stands to benefit the sophomore stud as much any other player on the defense. With a 5-tech defensive end lined up to the strong side of the field, it should open up Kelly to run free and make plays, rather than tangling with offensive tackles so often.
The bottom line is that Stoops seems to have molded this defense to leverage Kelly’s all-around skill set. If he continues on his current trajectory, OU’s defense will come along for the ride.
The nickel dilemma
One of the major questions dogging OU’s defense this offseason: How to respond to four- and five-receiver personnel groupings?
Playing the base defense in those situations would necessitate matching Kelly up against slot receivers. He’s got skills, but that’s asking a little much.
Instead, when OU deploys its nickel package, Kelly will slide over to WILL. Presumably, that means swapping Emmanuel Beal for the nickelback and keeping the MIKE on the field.
This alignment ensures that Kelly stays in the game, which is clearly a plus. By playing the beefier MIKE with him, it should help when opponents try to run out of those formations.
Still, the move comes with some risks. First, Kelly still only has one season on campus under his belt. Learning two positions is putting a lot on his plate.
Moreover, playing the MIKE in the nickel package may fortify the D against the run, but it also creates a vulnerability in coverage. Offensive coordinators in the Big 12 are more than crafty enough to figure out how to exploit that type of hole.
Luckily for Stoops, he’ll have time to work out some kinks. The first four games of the season include probably walkovers against UTEP and Tulane. Meanwhile, Ohio State and Baylor run more conventional offensive sets. That gets the Sooners to the bye week before gearing up for the Big 12 stretch run, when a steady nickel defense will be a must.