The Oklahoma Sooners go through middle linebackers like Spinal Tap went through drummers.
This week, Austin Box became the latest to suffer a devastating injury, going down with a disc problem in his back. (Yes, I know Box is supposedly coming back in three to six weeks. And if you buy that, I've got a bridge to sell you.)
Here's hoping Daniel Franklin doesn't spontaneously combust.
Luckily for defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who's also in charge of the linebackers, it's the one position where OU has talent to burn. Venables does a decent job coaching 'em up, too.
Primary among the standouts is Travis Lewis on the weak side. One of the best defensive players in the country, Lewis has been a tackling machine in his two years as a starter, racking up more than 250 stops.
Despite the gaudy numbers and accolades of pro scouts, Lewis' game-to-game consistency seemed to wane last season. Whether his mind was on the possibility of the NFL or it was a classic sophomore slump, something was just off about him in 2009.
The good news: Something clearly clicked in the offseason for OU's top tackler. Venables and OU head coach Bob Stoops sang Lewis' praises all spring, and he has become a more vocal presence on the defense. With dynamic Gerald McCoy off to the NFL, expect Lewis to emerge as the defensive leader.
While Travis Lewis is a known commodity, sophomore strongside linebacker Ronnell "The Hammer" Lewis didn't have many opportunities to show more than flashes of brilliance last season on special teams. (From here on out, they will just be "Travis" and "Ronnell.")
Whereas his predecessor Keenan Clayton really played the strong side like a hybrid linebacker-safety, Ronnell brings a skill set better-suited for search-and-destroy missions. Look for Venables to essentially turn the eight-man football legend from microscopic Dewar, Okla., loose to chase down ball carriers and rush the passer off the edge. On passing downs, Venables will occasionally shift Lewis down to defensive end.
If there's one spot that could prove to be the bane of this group, it's in the middle.
With Box out of the picture, redshirt freshman Tom Wort gets the starting nod by default, but he's no slouch. Ever since arriving at OU, the coaches have raved about his aggressiveness and sure tackling. Last year at this time, the heralded freshman was giving Ryan Reynolds a run for his money with the first team.
However, as a converted defensive back, Box's ability to cover the pass in the middle of the field is a big plus in the spread-heavy Big 12. Wort doesn't really bring that to the table. Factor in that Clayton, another convert from the secondary, is gone, and it means the Sooners could be somewhat vulnerable on underneath routes and one-on-one against tight ends and running backs.
Additionally, Wort is coming off a major knee injury in '09, which doesn't offer much peace of mind for the depth of the unit. Should he end up missing any extended time, OU will have to turn to Franklin, a third-stringer, or do some serious scrambling to mix and match 'backers at new positions, possibly sliding in sophomore Jaydan Bird from the outside.
Most importantly, Box's absence also means the Sooners have to replace the nerve center of the defense. In Venables' scheme, the man in the middle is normally responsible for receiving the signals from the sidelines and making the necessary adjustments. Box's institutional knowledge of OU's D gave him a significant advantage over Wort.
Travis can pitch in, but can he and Wort combine to make sure everyone is in the right place? This seems like a case where two heads may not be better than one.
Even with the concerns that have arisen since Box was knocked out of commission, though, linebacker remains the Sooners' greatest strength. This group will fly to the ball and punish opponents when they get there. Sans Box, they still have the play-making ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.