Amid the usual swirl of rumors and innuendo, the biggest piece of confirmed news to come from Oklahoma’s spring practices is that Caleb Kelly has moved to inside linebacker.
For the last two seasons, the former five-star recruit played the SAM position (strongside outside linebacker) in defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ 3-4 scheme with varying degrees of success. Kelly’s ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks off the edge has yet to materialize – he compiled just two sacks and six quarterback hurries in his first two seasons as a Sooner. On the other hand, he generally played well out in space against the run and in zone pass coverage. He even shifted to inside linebacker in passing situations, offering a sneak peek of what OU will get from Kelly in his new role.
If you’re looking for the clearest signal yet that OU is transitioning away from the 3-4, moving Kelly inside to WILL linebacker is it. Doing so opens the door to putting another defensive back on the field in place of the SAM in a 4-2-5 set. Alternatively, it could mean playing converted safety Ryan Jones at SAM, which would give the Sooners more of a hybrid at the position with better utility as a coverage player.
One way or the other, Stoops would be getting better pass defenders on the field as part of OU’s base defensive package. The theory of it all makes sense in the spread hotbed of the Big 12.
Frankly, I wonder if the application might get a little messy.
Finding a different home for Kelly within the new scheme fits with Stoops’ “best 11” mentality: You want to find ways to keep your most talented players on the field whenever possible. So, the thinking goes that if Kelly’s role within the scheme is being eliminated, just put him somewhere else.
However, it’s not so easy in reality. I’ve watched Kelly take on guards and tackles at the line of scrimmage enough to see that it typically doesn’t end well. He struggles to get off blocks and frequently gets pushed out of the action. Players with his frame (6-3, 229 pounds) typically don’t play inside linebacker for that very reason.
The fact that Kelly isn’t participating in spring practice due to injury only adds to the degree of difficulty for him in trying to pull this move off.
None of this should stop OU from changing its defensive scheme; Kelly hasn’t come close to proving that the Sooners would be better off building their D around his skill set. (In fact, spending so much time talking about his future probably speaks to the hopes that fans pinned on Kelly after a stretch of lean defensive recruiting.) Still, switching Kelly to ILB feels very “square peg, round hole.” He could very well find himself fighting for a job once August rolls around.