By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — Oklahoma’s season will be remembered for a lot of things. Linebacker Corey Nelson recalls it as one of the most frustrating five months of his career.
It was the period where his career went from burgeoning star to a marginal player through no fault of his own. Sooner defensive coordinator Mike Stoops believed the way to counteract the Big 12 Conference’s spread offenses was with as many defensive backs as possible. Nelson spent a lot of time standing on the sidelines because of it.
The scheme was the main reason linebacker Tom Wort opted to leave with a year of eligibility remaining. When teams put four or more receivers on the field, which is pretty often in the Big 12 Conference, the linebackers came off.
Nelson admitted he thought about departing as well.
“I thought about it. Yeah, I did,” Nelson said. “I put it in God’s hands, and he just decided ... I decided it was the best decision, and God just told me it was the best decision for me to stay another year because my teammates need me.”
The other reason is the Sooners’ defense needs him, too. One thing has been apparent since the 2012 season ended: linebackers are a necessity in OU’s scheme.
Mike Stoops has done a mea culpa.
“I think our scheme did a little bit of an injustice to our linebackers a year ago. I sound redundant, but I don’t know how else to say it,” he said. “When you’re going against four wideouts 70 percent of the game, that’s extraordinary and it limits some of the things these guys can do. We’re gonna try to keep two linebackers on the field as much as we can in each situation.”
There aren’t many circumstances you’d think taking Nelson off the field would be to the Sooners’ advantage. By the end of his sophomore season, he was one of OU’s best defenders.
The reason why was the versatility he showed. He had four pass breakups that season, but he also had 5 1/2 sacks — the second-best single-season sack total by a linebacker in the program’s history. Nelson showed he could play the traditional spot and rush off the edge.
The Sooners want to start using Nelson in that manner again. However, the first thing that needed to be done was to rebuild Nelson’s confidence — not only in himself, but in the position he plays.
“Last year, I got down on myself. I would say just last year, not playing as much. I kinda got down on myself. I had to rebuild it up. I was able to rebuild it up. It was just an amazing experience for me to be able to build it up,” Nelson said.
OU did not waste any time doing that with Nelson. As soon as winter conditioning started in January, linebackers coach Tim Kish was in Nelson’s ear constantly. There were words of encouragement mixed with making sure Nelson understood he was an essential element of the Sooners’ defensive plans.
“I got it back. I got my swag back, so it just feels good to be able to get it back,” Nelson said.
What exactly that means may be on display when the Sooners conduct the annual Red/White Spring Game at noon Saturday at Owen Field.
The Sooner coaching staff’s play sheet for that scrimmage can usually go on a credit card receipt with room to spare. If OU’s future opponents want to go into the 2013 season thinking Nelson is a tiny part of the defensive plans, no one is going to stop them.
However, Stoops said at the start of spring practice that Nelson along with cornerback Aaron Colvin were the leaders of the defense and the two players he needed to rebuild the defense around.
The faith Nelson lost last season has been restored.