The most interesting questions about OU’s outside linebackers in 2018 come more from how Mike Stoops will deploy them than who will be manning the positions.
Stoops has primarily run a 3-4 scheme for years. In typical “best 11” fashion, he shapes the D to the contours of his personnel.
For the last two years, that meant lining up Caleb Kelly at SAM linebacker to utilize his ability to play in space. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo played the JACK position coming off the weakside edge and served as the team’s most disruptive force game in and game out.
Smoke signals from Norman suggest OU is looking to add some flexibility to its base defense this year. That has major implications for at least one set of the OLBs.
Caleb Kelly’s move to inside linebacker creates some intrigue at both his new position and his old one.
Ironically, Kelly represented a departure from the Sooners’ typical strongside LBs because he was a fairly conventional player. Putting redshirt freshman Ryan Jones at SAM indicates that Stoops wants to reinstall a hybrid player at the spot.
Jones spent his first year on campus working with the safeties before moving to OLB in the spring. Stoops and Lincoln Riley have raved about the athleticism of the former high school wideout, who has bulked up to 236 pounds. In what little action we’ve seen Jones involved in, he demonstrated a high motor and appeared explosive on the edge. He can clearly hoof it, and he covers like a natural safety.
Tony Jefferson circa 2010 feels like a best-case scenario for Jones, which would open up a range of options for the defense. In particular, the Sooners could trust their base personnel to handle more spread formations without subbing. Additionally, Jones can hold up better in man coverage than Kelly, who primarily handled short zones. That would enable Stoops to vary his coverage schemes more and add an element of unpredictability that has been missing recently.
OU also tinkered with Mark Jackson at SAM in the spring, which felt awfully curious for a player who was brought in as a pass rusher. A sign that the position change might not have stuck: Jackson is still listed as a DE/LB, i.e. a JACK LB, on the official roster.
Freshman Nik Bonitto may end up as Jones’ backup when all is said and done. It’s also possible that OU would simply play pure nickel in the event that Jones gets hurt.
Obo stands out as the biggest loss from OU’s 2017 defense. You could count on him to play relentless ball every week, which made him OU’s biggest threat to opposing offenses on every play.
The hope for 2018 is that Stoops will come up with new ways to put heat on opponents and that the players will be up to the task. Even so, the new JACK has big shoes to fill.
As of now, it feels like the position is there for the taking for Californian Addison Gumbs. At 6-3, the sophomore possesses the length desired in an edge rusher. More importantly, he has packed on roughly 25 pounds since last season. OU hasn’t had that combination of size and heft at JACK since Geneo Grissom manned the position during the 2014 season.
You’d think the added weight would enable Gumbs to play with his hand in the dirt fairly frequently. That would translate into more four-man defensive fronts, which Stoops has claimed are coming for years. An important question: What has the weight done to Gumbs’ explosiveness off the edge?
On the other hand, Gumbs’ chief competition for the starting job, Jackson, checked in just four pounds heavier than his ‘17 playing weight. At 239 pounds, Jackson appears to be more of a stand-up end or linebacker. If he wins the gig, it could mean OU’s alignment won’t change much from previous seasons.
With Jalen Redmond likely out of the year, redshirt freshman K’Jakyre Daley finds himself one step closer to the field. Like Gumbs, Daley appears to have spent plenty of time in the gym in the last 12 months. He now weighs 254 pounds, up from 218 in his first year. Daley bulking up only serves to strengthen suspicions about a four-man front.