By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — The 2012 season was four months of confusion for Oklahoma linebacker Corey Nelson. He was a starter, but the position he played seemed to be fading away.
There wasn’t much room for a 235-pound linebacker in a conference whose offenses were thriving on the ability to get speedy receivers matched up with slower defenders and exploit the mismatch.
Linebackers like Nelson, it seemed, were headed toward extinction.
Of course, that was last season’s way of thinking. With OU’s season opener less than three weeks away, Nelson is a much larger part of the Sooners’ defensive plans.
“What we’re trying to do is find some versatility on our defense to keep two linebackers on the field at all times,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said, “and still be able to cover the multitude of formations, the horizontal passing game where you can match up with some of these great skill receivers and where you don’t have a linebacker matched up with an inside receiver.”
It’s the cat-and-mouse games coaches play throughout games and seasons. One of the reasons OU’s defense struggled late last year was teams had figured out it was playing a minimum number of linebackers. If there were more than three wide receivers on the field, Nelson was standing on the sideline, robbing the Sooners of one of their best defenders and making them extra vulnerable to opposing running games.
Keeping Nelson on the field for every snap is the experiment the Sooners have conducted since March.
But Nelson, and any other linebacker at OU, has to do his part to fit the part. The days of linebackers simply needing to meet running backs in the hole and do a decent job in pass coverage are extinct.
OU isn’t looking to reinvent the position, but a certain attribute is sought.
“It’s all about speed,” Nelson said. “If you look at the Big 12 and it’s all the spread offense and the zone-read option and QBs throwing the ball all over the place. The linebackers like us in the Big 12 have to be able to run. That’s one of the key components we have at the linebacker position. All of our guys can run.”
Nelson believes he has become better at covering ground since last season. So has sophomore middle linebacker Frank Shannon. The two prize in-state linebackers OU signed in February — Norman North’s Jordan Evans and Tulsa Washington’s Dominique Alexander — were coveted because of their speed.
“They just move like linebackers should,” Mike Stoops said. “They’re big, they’re athletic, they’re fast. They’re seeing things the right way. The more repititions they get, their ability to find the ball will become greater and greater. They’re young linebackers. They’re not robotic. They float to the football the way you’re supposed to.”
For decades, OU has routinely come up with linebackers game-changing linebackers. From 2000-2007, the Sooners claimed four different All-American linebackers in Rocky Calmus, Teddy Lehman, Rufus Alexander and Curtis Lofton.
It’s undeniable the style of offense OU faces in the Big 12 makes it tougher for linebackers to do what they’ve traditionally done. But OU’s are changing with the times.