NORMAN — For generations, linebackers have been the focal points of defenses. Schemes have been designed to force the ball toward them and these big, athletic tackling machines took care of the rest.
Oklahoma has produced several of the greatest to play the college game. From Bud Wilkinson’s era all through Bob Stoops’ current regime, OU’s history has been filled with great linebackers.
What many have been asking over the last three weeks is where has that gone?
The simple answer is most of the linebackers have been standing on the sideline. The more complex answer is the evolution of college football.
Over the last three games against Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, the Sooners haven’t relied much on linebackers. Against the Mountaineers, they were rarely on the field. Redshirt freshman Frank Shannon, who is considered OU’s best pass coverage linebacker in coverage, has seen the most playing time. Starting middle linebacker Tom Wort and weakside linebacker Corey Nelson have been on the field when there are two running backs in the backfield along with the quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has an explanation for it, and it starts with a question.
“If you play two linebackers, can you play man (coverage)?” he said. “Now your safety’s got to cover a slot receiver; that’s not real good. Or, if you play zone ... there’s stress points; these people are very equipped to stress your defense. The players, you’ve gotta get guys who can get off blocks and make plays. Players make plays; we’re struggling, finding plays within our scheme right now, and that’s frustrating.”
Stoops’ scheme calls for matching every athlete the Big 12’s spread offenses can muster with an equal athlete. Put five receivers on the field and the counter is at least six defensive backs.
In some ways, it’s worked. Through 11 games, OU has given up 10 less passing touchdowns than last season. Passing yards allowed per game has dropped by about 47 yards per game.
However, the Sooners’ opponents are averaging 51 more rush yards a game and given up seven more rushing touchdowns than it allowed all of last season, and there’s still two more games to go.
Stoops pointed out — and it’s a valid point — that Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State ran wild, but OU won all three of those games. It couldn’t have prevailed in Bedlam without forcing a three-and-out on the Cowboys’ final possession in the fourth quarter or holding them to a field goal in overtime.
Wort and Nelson both admit to being frustrated with the way their roles have changed but understand why.
“The position has definitely changed and the game of football is always evolving,” Wort said. “You have to adapt. We’re all just doing the best that we can.”
They’ll likely see more playing time when the 12th-ranked Sooners face TCU at 11 a.m. Saturday at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Horned Frogs employ a spread offense, but they are a running team. The Sooners need effective play from their linebackers to win.
John ShinnFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org