A couple of position changes made Oklahoma’s linebacker group maybe one of the more intriguing two-deeps on the roster.
But defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his linebacker coaches aren’t writing anybody’s name in permanent marker just yet.
Marcus Stripling moved to outside linebacker from defensive end, though he’ll still play a hybrid spot at times. Joseph Wete moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, and while coaches seemed impressed by his spring, his long frame and pass rushing skills could enable to him to move between the two.
Either way, senior DaShaun White and fourth-year junior Brian Asamoah seem firmly entrenched as the starters on the inside, and nobody’s taking Nik Bonitto’s job on the outside.
And yet, OU’s depth at the linebacker position is better than ever. Whether it’s up-and-comers like Shane Whitter on the inside or Brynden Walker on the outside, or true freshmen Danny Stutsman (inside) or Clayton Smith (outside), or sixth-year seniors Caleb Kelly or Bryan Mead, or versatile Jamal Morris or the promising David Ugwoegbu (he can play either inside spot like he did last year or could even step back to the outside if needed), the Sooners seem suddenly loaded for the fall.
“It’s amazing the difference I have in this room today,” said inside linebackers coach Brian Odom. “At the moment, we have nine guys in the room. Every one of those nine guys have played and played meaningful minutes, whether it be on special teams or actual defensive reps.
“We have experience and guys with a little bit of savvy. Guys who can anticipate what’s coming, had enough reps, seen enough, been in the fire enough where they can recognize. I’m really excited about the unit.”
On the outside, Jamar Cain has the rush linebackers (and the defensive ends), and he’s just as excited about the numbers and the talent he has there — even if some of the faces are new and unproven.
“With the move of Marcus Stripling over there, and then a Brynden Walker, then a Clayton Smith, like there's a lot of opportunities over there just to get to get snaps,” Cain said. “And Nik is a kid that knows his limit, which is good, because sometimes you get kids out there that want to play for 8-10 plays straight. Nik knows he's a 5-6 snap guy, then the next guy come comes in.”
Another of the “next guys” coming in could be a true freshman in Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge. He only played football for one year in high school, but coaches aren’t too shy to pile compliments on his potential.
“I just told him here a little bit ago, ‘It’s gonna take a while. It's gonna take a year or year or two,’ as his growth is new. So with that being being new, you got to just trust the process.
“I think our talent level is really good. When I first got here, I didn’t know what I had.”
As Grinch goes into Year 3 of Speed D, he’ll push for continued improvement from across the defense. The defensive line is clearly on an upward swing and has more talent than it’s had in a decade. The defensive backfield has been similarly restocked with more athletic ability and size (and tackling) than the Sooners have had.
But to tie it all together, the OU linebackers need to show progress from their solid 2020 season.
“The ball’s in their court as far as what their focus is and how they come to work every day,” Odom said. “If they come to work and they're not into it, they're gonna be average, just like everybody else.
“But if they come to work and they do the things that we're asking them to do — and they they play with technique and they tackle well and their eyes are in the right spot and their footwork is right, use their hands — there's not another unit in the country that is as talented as this group, in my opinion. I wouldn't trade them for anybody.”