Oklahoma’s inside linebackers in 2017 embodied everything that has gone wrong with the unit – and in some ways the entire defense – for nearly a decade.
Nine months after he played his last high school snap, true freshman Kenneth Murray trotted out at MIKE LB with the starting defense. An unheralded JUCO transfer, Emmanuel Beal, lined up next to him.
Murray and Beal did their best, but the combination of inexperience and an inability to get off blocks plagued the pair all year. Neither was brought in to the program with the intention that he would be a major contributor at his position last season. Concussion issues sent former WILL LB Tay Evans into retirement early in the 2016 season, forcing Beal into action. Meanwhile, the coaching staff opted to slide Murray over to MIKE, a position the rookie had never played before, to make up for lack of better options.
How did the position reach such a state of disarray? Linebackers coach Tim Kish has excelled at turning project players such as Jordan Evans and Dom Alexander into NFL draft picks. On the other hand, shaky recruiting and roster management are forcing OU to rely on those skills to an unnecessary degree. OU hasn't had any margin for error at the position, even when run-of-the-mill bad luck strikes.
The personnel situation is solidifying – the Sooners certainly aren’t hurting for numbers or talent at inside linebacker now. That has to translate on the field eventually.
Kenneth Murray's freshman season ended with a rough outing versus Georgia in the Rose Bowl. His struggles with run fits and keys against the Bulldogs matched up with how he performed in the regular season. And if all you knew of his rookie year was that cavalcade of busted assignments, you’d think the Sooners were in a heap of trouble at MIKE this season.
Yet, for an 18-year-old who had never played a down at the position in his life, Murray was as good as could be expected. In fact, you could argue Murray is currently tracing a similar trajectory to Jordan Evans, his predecessor at MIKE who's now a Cincinnati Bengal. Both had to bulk up quickly in their freshman years to handle the rigors of playing inside. Circumstance also forced both into action before they were ready.
Additionally, Murray and Evans share the all-around skill set necessary to play inside LB against a spread-heavy schedule like the one Oklahoma plays. Murray pursues well from sideline to sideline and can handle receivers coming out of the backfield. He knows how to deliver a blow when he meets ball carriers in the hole.
Too often, though, he found himself out of plays and swallowed up by blockers who caught him out of position. A year later, Murray should have a better handle on his reads and gap assignments. Once he finds his groove, Murray could emerge as the best player on the entire defense. Hopefully, that happens this season.
As for the backups, Jon-Michael Terry has the raw materials to be an all-conference LB – emphasis on raw. OU’s coaches spoke highly of JMT in the spring, suggesting the light bulb is flickering on for him. It won't be enough to unseat Murray if so, but it would give the Sooners the reliable backup option at MIKE that was missing in the past.
Four-star recruit DaShaun White appears headed for a redshirt. He's currently tipping the scales at just 221 pounds, so bulking up in the strength program sounds like a must. That doesn't mean he won't be pressed into service at MIKE if disaster strikes the players ahead of him. The new redshirt rules could possibly allow him to serve as a stopgap measure in that case.
Although not entirely unexpected, Caleb Kelly’s switch from the outside LB on the strong side of the defense to WILL LB on the interior still made waves this spring. I've written previously regarding my concerns about the challenges facing Kelly in making this move.
I do assume that Kelly will get the job, but he could wind up in the middle of heated position battle.
An injury sidelined Claremore product Levi Draper during his freshman season in 2017, but the former four-star recruit looked the part in the spring game – agile, good instincts, solid in coverage over the middle of the field. He’d probably be next in line behind Kelly.
Although lacking in size, senior Curtis Bolton possesses the experience to become a capable backup. Bolton was even getting snaps as part of rush packages last season before an injury cut his year short. What’s unclear is if Kish and Stoops view Bolton more as a specialist or an every-down player. Either way, he'll likely have the biggest impact on the defense as a rusher again this year.