By MURRAY EVANS
NORMAN — As Oklahoma’s defense fell apart over the final third of last season, linebacker Corey Nelson often felt like a man without a position - because, essentially, he was.
Starting with a late-season game against West Virginia, the Sooners often left their linebackers on the sideline and played seven defensive backs in an attempt to slow down the up-tempo offenses they were facing. The no-linebacker strategy failed - against West Virginia, Oklahoma gave up a school-record 778 yards - and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops acknowledged he’d done the linebackers “an injustice.”
As No. 16 Oklahoma (1-0) prepares to host Big 12 foe West Virginia (1-0) on Saturday, Nelson is back in his role as an anchor of the defense. He led the Sooners with eight tackles (two for loss) and a sack in a season-opening 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe, a game in which Oklahoma mostly went with three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
A performance like that should encourage the entire team, Nelson said.
“For me to be the leader of the defense, I have to continue to build that confidence with my defense,” Nelson said. “A lot of times you see teams get tired of getting three-and-outs, but I had to continue to create that excitement and create that energy.”
As a freshman in 2010, Nelson played in all 14 of Oklahoma’s games, on special teams and as a backup linebacker. He blocked a punt out of the end zone to record a safety in a loss to Texas A&M. As a sophomore, he received honorable mention on the All-Big 12 Conference list after recording 58 tackles (8? for loss) and 4? sacks.
But as Oklahoma’s defense regressed last year, so did Nelson’s numbers, as he finished with 47 tackles and one sack.
Besides the abysmal outing against West Virginia (albeit in a 50-49 win), the Sooners gave up 618 yards in a 51-48 overtime win over Oklahoma State and 633 yards in a 41-13 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Nelson entered the offseason determined to turn around not only the Sooners’ defense, but his own performance. He said during the preseason that the success - or failure - of the Oklahoma defense depends on the linebackers, thus choosing to take the pressure on his shoulders.
“I want to take that burden,” he said. “I want to see what it holds.”
Nelson’s co-captain on the Sooners’ defense, cornerback Aaron Colvin, appreciates that attitude.
“I’ll ride with him wherever he goes,” Colvin said. “He always knows I have his back. Corey will do the same for me. Corey, he’s a very smart guy. Sometimes when he talks and things, a lot of his emotions and expressions come out. He’s a passionate kind of guy. That’s just him. It’s going to showcase this year. I feel like he’s very comfortable. I know he’s going to make plays.”
Stoops said facing up-tempo offenses, such as the one used by West Virginia, presents a particular challenge for linebackers, as they often end up having to cover a speedy receiver in addition to trying to provide support to stop the run.
Against such an offense, “you’ve got to be more zone-oriented if backers are going to be in the game, because they certainly can’t match up with a great skill guy out there in the slot,” Stoops said.
He said Nelson is adapting to the defensive changes installed during the offseason and that the Sooners have “got to have him on the field at all times” this season.
“I think he’s more focused and certainly seems more engaging in what we’re doing,” Stoops said. “Hopefully that’ll lead to more production on his part and certainly we’ve put a lot of responsibility on him in this defense. He had to be a playmaker for us to be successful.”
Nelson is glad the Sooners again have found a spot for the linebackers in their defensive scheme.
“The linebacker fits well,” he said. “It’s all about speed. You look at the Big 12, it’s all about spread offenses and zone-read option, the QB throwing the ball all over the place. With linebackers like us in the Big 12, you’ve got to be able to run. That’s one of the key components we have at the linebacker position. All of our guys can run.”