2020 Position Preview: Linebacker
John. E. Hoover
Every Friday going into Big 12 Media Days on July 20-21, SI Sooners will break down one Oklahoma position group. Today: Linebacker.
No doubt Kenneth Murray’s departure for the NFL hurts Oklahoma’s linebacker corps in 2020.
But it’s not as bad as it sounds.
In fact, the Sooners’ linebacker room is the deepest of any position on the team despite Murray’s early entry into the draft.
Former 5-star prospect Caleb Kelly is back from injury as a fifth-year senior. Sudden star DaShaun White is expected to slide from weakside linebacker to Murray’s spot in the middle. And rush ‘backer Nik Bonitto emerged last season as a dependable big-play guy.
Jon-Michael Terry should be OK to play his senior year after an injury last season. Coaches have only talked up sophomores David Ugwoegbu and Brian Asamoah. Robert Barnes is a former starter at safety who will shift to linebacker this season. Redshirt freshman Joseph Wete has looked the part since he got to campus. And backup Bryan Mead is a senior.
“We’re gonna have some depth and talent in that room, without a doubt,” head coach Lincoln Riley said in March. “Having Caleb back full speed, having DaShaun White back, Brian Asamoah has had a tremendous offseason so far and, I think, one of the most talented guys in that room. Bryan Mead has been a steady fixture in that room for several years now, and (true freshman) Shane Whitter has come in and done a really nice job. He’s been very, very impressive for a young guy so far. It’s gonna be a very competitive room.”
Murray’s sideline-to-sideline athletic ability and his singular focus on excellence will be impossible to replace.
But Murray came to OU as an outside linebacker and played the middle out of necessity (a 2017 injury to Terry). White, on the other hand, was a natural middle linebacker when he got to Norman, and after a standout year playing weakside, he’ll be more comfortable in the middle. Last year White was fourth on the team with 51 tackles.
Kelly injured his knee last spring and was set to sit out last year, but he rehabbed hard, healed up quickly and got to play in four games and was able to retain his redshirt. Kelly was a blue-chip coming out of high school in Fresno and has flashed incredible playmaking ability in his career, but going into 2018, Kelly was beat out by Curtis Bolton. His role last year was interesting: he didn’t start, but in the final three games of the season, he was on the field in key moments and contributed important moments against TCU, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
And Bonitto emerged as a redshirt freshman with 43 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 1/2 quarterback sacks, five QB hurries, four pass break-ups and his season highlight: the game-saving interception at Baylor.
Terry could figure in either on the weak side or in the middle. He previously was set for duty inside, but after an injury, he moved outside and said last year (before getting hurt again) it was a more natural position for him. With White’s likely move to the middle, Terry figures to be available for backup duty there or could compete for playing time with Kelly outside.
Barnes’ move from safety could be interesting. After starting the last eight games of 2018 at strong safety, he played in four games in 2019 and then chose to redshirt. The last Sooner Nation saw from him was getting run over by Alabama’s Josh Jacobs in the 2018-19 Orange Bowl, but Barnes has added muscle and bulk to take on the more physical rigors of linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said in March that Barnes seemed to be picking up the position just fine and was moved there for a reason.
“We expect him to compete,” Grinch said. “We don’t move anybody to be a backup. We don’t move anybody to be a depth guy. We’ve talked about, over a year’s time, we’re dying for depth.”
Barnes’ history at safety would seem to give him an advantage in coverage if Grinch needs a true strongside linebacker or if issues arise at weakside. But Riley hinted that he could be needed in the middle.
“We had some conversations late last year once we’d all made the decision to redshirt Robert,” Riley said. “It was a conversation about the way his body had evolved and also I think for him and all of us, getting to see what ‘Speed D’ looks like and where does he best fit in in that.
“I think that, combined with certainly losing Kenneth and some opportunities there at inside linebacker, it just made sense all the way around. Even at the end of the year last year through his training we started to slowly put a little bit of weight on him and as we decided to go full-speed with this we’ve been more aggressive. He’s responded well, done well.”
Asamoah and Ugwoegbu also showed flashes throughout 2019, combining for 44 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback sacks. Both are versatile enough to play multiple positions, but at 6-4, 245, Ugwoegbu has the frame to be an impact pass rusher at the rush or “jack” linebacker position with Bonitto, or could even slide inside at defensive end if needed.
To get the latest OU posts as they happen, join the SI Sooners Community by clicking “Follow” at the top right corner of the page (mobile users can click the notifications bell icon), and follow SI Sooners on Twitter @All_Sooners.