NORMAN — It would be hard to blame Dominique Alexander if he’d rebuffed Oklahoma’s overture last winter. He was a standout highschool linebacker and had many offers to play the position elsewhere.
They all offered something the Sooners did not have: a current defensive plan that focused on using multiple linebackers. The Sooners could only offer a future plan.
Alexander weighed the pros and cons and made a simple decision.
“Recruiting and choosing a school is all about trust. You’ve gotta believe in what they tell you because any school can tell you what you wanna hear. That’s all most recruiters do anyway,” Alexander said. “But it’s all about the man that you are closest to, that you believe in the most, and you believe in the program and what the future is. You’ve just gotta lean on that when you make your commitment.”
Betting on the future paid off handsomely for both Alexander and the Sooners. Earlier this month he was both the Associated Press Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year and the league’s coaches’ defensive freshman of the year.
The 70 tackles he amassed in just seven starts since senior Corey Nelson suffered a season-ending pectoral injury have been instrumental in the run that has No. 11 OU facing No. 3 Alabama Jan. 2 in the Sugar Bowl.
Think back to Oct. 5 when Nelson suffered the injury in the 20-17 victory over TCU. Removing Nelson from the field appeared to be a death knell for OU’s defense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops had spent the previous offseason revamping the scheme in order to keep two linebackers — specifically Nelson — on the field at all times. The senior responded by playing at an all-conference level through the first five games.
Nelson’s replacement: Alexander, a true freshman. If there was ever a time to ditch the defensive changes, that was it.
But Stoops did not.
He and the rest of OU’s coaching staff had been impressed with what the freshman showed since preseason camp. He lacked experience in the defensive system, but everything else was there.
“He has, you know, great instincts for a young player that can find the football, and it’s not that easy,” Stoops said. “But he’s still learning and growing in the system, but he just continues to get better, and now that he sees things over and over and over, he can recognize things quicker and react quicker. Those are all positive. This whole experience is gonna make him a much different player a year from now.”
Different to the point the Sooners might have found their next All-American linebacker. It’s an incredible change from when the 2012 season ended. OU played linebackers sparingly when it faced spread offenses. Even Nelson was disgruntled when the season ended.
Alexander heard the same things from other schools. Why go to OU to play linebacker? It’s not using them.
“A lot of schools wanted me to play safety because I wasn’t as big as I am now in high school. The schools that wanted me to play safety were just telling me I could come in and start right away, and that me playing linebacker at OU, I probably wasn’t gonna play because they’ve got that one linebacker system,” Alexander said. “Like I said earlier, it’s all about trust, and you’ve just gotta believe your coach.”
He asked a lot of questions during the recruiting process. Even on his visit to Norman, he was looking for players to validate what OU’s coaching staff was telling him.
“It was a big get. Dominique is a key player on our defense. I’m glad he came,” middle linebacker Frank Shannon said. “I remember when I had him on his visit, we were always talking to each other. Playing defense here, it’s traditional so you’ve got to be ready to make a whole bunch of plays when you come here.”
The playmaker emerged quickly. Over time, experience will grow. Alexander’s 216-pound frame will swell. Those are the things that take time to occur. All the essentials, however, have shined through over the last three months.
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