Last season, the Oklahoma Sooners defensive line took the college football world by storm.
Even before Ronnie Perkins was reinserted into the lineup, Isaiah Thomas, Nik Bonitto and Perrion Winfrey impressed. Shutting down the run and generating a consistent pass rush, it appeared that Alex Grinch’s transformation of the much maligned side of the football in Norman was ahead of schedule.
This season, the OU linebackers hope to make a similar leap.
“We’ve already known that about our d-linemen and it just took the rest of the world and the rest of the college football world to catch up and finally realize it,” junior linebacker David Ugwoegbu said in a Zoom press conference on Monday. “That’s exactly how we feel about this linebacker crew.”
The 2021 crop of linebackers will be a well-seasoned unit. At the end of last season, Ugwoegbu, Brian Asamoah and DaShaun White all saw plenty of snaps, breeding a healthy competition between the inside linebackers. Then-freshman Shane Whitter also began to see limited game time, proving he’d impressed Grinch and linebacker coach Brian Odom enough for them to intrust him with a few snaps in the Cotton Bowl.
Redshirt senior Caleb Kelly also returns to the room this season after missing the 2020 campaign with another season-ending injury. A former 5-star recruit out of the class of 2016, Kelly has appeared in 35 games for OU in his career, totaling 160 tackles and 5 quarterback sacks in his career.
Kelly’s experience has already been felt beyond the walls of the linebacker room this spring.
“(Kelly’s made) a huge impact. A guy that's been here for about 10 years. He knows the ins and outs of this team. A guy like him, we need out there. He knows everything about this defense and all the players on it as well. He knows what's to be expected,” Thomas said. “He can do that by being a leader and also by telling us what to do. It sucks the adversity that he's endured throughout his career, but he can take it.
“He's here for a reason, and he decided to come back for a reason to prove himself and to prove why he's that guy and why he's come back to be a leader on this defense. I'm excited to see, I'm excited to have him behind me, taking this defense by charge.”
Ugwoegbu said Kelly has been a vocal leader, helping him and the other linebackers along.
“Caleb is a vet in this sport and in this program. He has a lot input and a lot of stuff to pass down to us younger guys,” he said. “We learn a lot from Caleb in the film room and on the field. It's been great to have him back for sure.”
Three years in to the Grinch experience, the linebackers feel ready to take the next step and add to the defensive renaissance in Norman to help Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense chase the program’s eighth national championship.
“We have real vets in there,” Ugwoegbu said. “We have a whole bunch of guys that go under the radar but are real dogs. Everybody in that room can play.
“We already feel that’s us. We just have to wake up the rest of the college football world.”