(Editor's note: Previously, we looked at the maturation of the Oklahoma Sooners' junior quarterback Landry Jones. Today, we skip over to the other side of the ball to take a peek at one of the strongest position groups on the OU roster, the linebackers.)
I'm not aware of any self-help books on how a football team is supposed to deal with the loss of a teammate. I also doubt the coaching gurus put any tips on handling that kind of tragedy in their handbooks, either. Following the shocking passing of starting middle linebacker Austin Box this summer, however, the Oklahoma Sooners are now left looking for the best ways to address a sudden void in the defense, both on and off the field.
What can be done for this team away from football is anyone's guess. The coaches' plans for filling the gap in the middle of the field are starting to take shape, though.
Men in the Middle
If you put any stock in a mid-summer depth chart released by Bob Stoops, the British Bulldog, third-year sophomore Tom Wort, looks like the leader for the gig. Last year, Wort ran with the first team early in the season before Box returned midway through the season. Wort drew his fair share of ire from the fans during that stretch for his generally reckless play. Whether it was diving on the pile well after the whistle, biting hard on a play fake or over-pursuing a runner, Wort jumped in headfirst on everything. The result: plenty of busts.
On the other hand, there were a good number of booms, too – enough to make you think Wort could have a big impact. Prior to injuring his knee in the 2009 preseason, the touted recruit was in line to start as a true freshman. Although he still looked like he was getting his groove back in 2010, Wort still hit opponents with the same ferocity of his reputation and proved to be a successful blitzer, notching 4.5 sacks on the season.
If not Wort, the two-deep would have you believe junior Jaydan Bird is next in line. While the reviews on Bird are always solid, he constantly seems to be on the outside looking in during these position battles. Look for the Kansas native to rotate in and provide depth this season, but a starting role probably won't be in the cards to start the year.
Of course, if necessary, Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables could press Travis Lewis into service in the middle. Considering the Mouth of the Sooners has averaged 120 tackles per season in his three years starting at the weakside position, messing with Lewis' success seem like an odd plan. Plus, it's not like Lewis returned for another year to learn a new position. The bottom line is that No. 28 may be the best linebacker in the country when playing on the weakside, so he'll probably do what he do.
Experimenting at Strongside
If there has been a big story to come out of the first few days of OU's fall camp, it would have to be the Venables' tinkering with sophomores Tony Jefferson and Corey Nelson. From the sounds of it, the Sooners are considering having Jefferson move from the hybrid safety-linebacker position – the "Royback" – to more of a traditional deep safety, bumping junior Javon Harris to the bench. Meanwhile, Nelson, who's listed as Lewis' understudy, would slide in the spot vacated by Jefferson.
The potential benefits of this move would seem to be two-fold. First, the coaching staff has raved about Nelson since the spring, at which point Stoops made it clear that the staff would find a way to get him on the field in the fall. If playing the best 11 guys is the goal, this would accomplish it.
Second, the first half of the Sooners' schedule includes two huge games against teams that will be running more pro-style sets, Florida State and Texas, than the typical spread offenses OU will face in the Big 12. Installing a more traditional 4-3 personnel package with Nelson playing the strongside position gets more size on the field to take on fullbacks and tight ends.
Obviously, losing Box hurts – in a number of different ways. Yet, more than anything, OU may miss his presence and football acumen on the field. The Sooners are fortunate to have a number of talented performers among their linebackers. Who will provide that steadying presence on the field?
To be determined.