Oklahoma Sooners 2011: How Will the Linebackers Look Without Travis Lewis?

Eric PennellCorrespondent IIAugust 18, 2011

Oklahoma Sooners 2011: How Will the Linebackers Look Without Travis Lewis?

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    Shades of 2009 are creeping in and it is making everyone in Norman a little nervous.

    Two years ago saw a lineup full of NFL talent become riddled with injuries. This included incumbent Heisman winner Sam Bradford (totaled two quarters of play) and future first-rounder Jermaine Gresham (never stepped on the field). The offensive line began to pile up on the trainer’s table as well and the lack of depth showed.

    This year, preseason All American linebacker Travis Lewis is out seven more weeks with a broken bone in his foot. Travis led the team in tackles three straight seasons.

    Another hole was created when senior middle linebacker Austin Box tragically died this summer.

    Not to fear, Sooner Nation. It seems two-time Coach of the Year Bob Stoops has learned from his mistakes in the past and has recruited deeply at the position. Even though Lewis’ talent will be missed on the field for the beginning of the season, the Sooners are loaded in the middle of their defense.

    How do each of the three linebacker positions look, sans Travis Lewis?

Middle Linebacker

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    Austin Box’s presence on and off the field will never be made up for. His loss weighs heavily on the players and will all season. The team will do it’s best, however, to fill the giant hole he leaves in the middle.

    Stepping in will be high-motor, always-hustling Tom Wort. The 6’0” 229lb redshirt sophomore played in 12 games last season, recording 66 tackles and 4.5 sacks. In his new role as lead man in the middle, Tom could easily approach the 100 tackle/10 sack barrier this season.

    His highlight from last year was an impressive performance against Texas where Tom had 10 tackles, two for loss and a sack. He finished the year second amongst linebackers in tackles.

    Tom’s decision making abilities have been the big question mark in his short career. He often missed assignments in pass defense or hit the wrong hole on a blitz. At times, the young man seemed a bit lost on the field.

    With the experienced gained last year and a third offseason under renowned Defensive Coordinator Brent Venerables, Tom should be pointed in the right direction.

    Backing up Wort is junior Jaydan Bird, who has seen action in 26 games in his two years on the roster, mostly on special teams. He forced a fumble against Florida State last year—here’s hoping for a repeat performance!

Strong Side Linebacker

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    The strong side linebacker in a Stoops defense is not the every day ‘backer you are used to seeing at other schools. The position is also referred to as the “nickel back” and must be able to play the pass and the run at any time. It takes a special kind of talent to excel at the hybrid DB/LB position and the Sooners have just the man.

    Redshirt sophomore Tony Jefferson had himself quite a season last year. He regularly filled the stat sheet accumulating 65 tackles—seven for a loss and two sacks—as well as two interceptions and a recovered fumble. His impressive play earned him Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, as well as a spot on several Freshman All American teams.

    He is quick enough to blanket the slot receiver and strong enough to lay out a running back. He piled up 12 tackles last year against Cincinnati and put on a dominating performance against Texas, receiving "oohs" and "aahs" from the crimson half of the Cotton Bowl on several occasions. The young talent has the potential to be one of the all time greats by the time his career comes to an end.

    Behind Tony on the depth chart is junior Joseph Ibiloye, who has seen time in every game over the last two seasons. At 6’3” and 219lbs he is a bit more linebacker than defensive back, but fills in nicely at strong side. Expect to see Joseph on the field a lot this year.

Weak Side Linebacker

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    This is the position vacated by Travis Lewis and contrary to many paranoid Sooners fans, the team isn’t as bad off as you might think.

    His 360 career tackles over the last three seasons is staggering, but the weak side ‘backer has always racked up tackles in a Stoops defense and regularly leads the team with 100-plus take downs.

    Another reason to lower your blood pressure is the man right behind Travis on the depth chart, Corey Nelson.  The sophomore was one of the most decorated recruits to sign with Oklahoma in many years. He was the Texas 5A Player of the year, was included on the Parade Magazine and Under Armor All-American teams and was a five-star recruit, according to Scout.com

    When you suit up for the Crimson and Cream, however, you check your past accolades at the door. Plenty of high-ranking recruits have come and gone through the program without ever making an impact.

    This is not the case with Nelson. He played in all 14 games last year, excelling against Missouri and Texas A&M. This year, he has been the most highly praised player in preseason and has been touted by coaches several times as the best player on the defense.

    Getting forced into a starting role a year early might be a blessing in disguise for the Sooners, giving Nelson additional time to learn and grow. Think Landry Jones here.

    It is hard to tell who will spell Nelson when he needs a breather. The other two backups (Bird and Ibiloye) could slide over. On paper, the best of the rest looks like junior Daniel Franklin, who has spent plenty of time on special teams the last two seasons.

Where the Loss of Lewis Really Hurts

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    Despite losing such an imposing force on the weak side, the Sooners will be just fine at linebacker in Lewis’ absence. The biggest effect of the injury will be at free safety.

    Corey Nelson was impressing the staff so much that they were experimenting with the starting lineup in order to get the best 11 men on the field. Stoops had moved Tony Jefferson to free safety in place of Javon Harris, inserting Nelson at the nickel back spot. Early reports out of camp were that things were going very well with the new look defense until Lewis went down, forcing everyone to slide back to their original spots.

    Travis will return right in the middle of a tough Big 12 slate, making it difficult to tinker with the lineup. We may not get to see this potentially lethal combination this year.

    I wouldn’t count it out, though. This will be something to watch for when the All-American suits up again.

    Note to Sooner fans: This is how good Corey Nelson is. The staff was moving proven players to new positions just to get him on the field. Be excited!

Sooners Welcome Michigan MLB Transfer

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    Just in case problems continue, the Sooners have decided to bring in freshman middle linebacker Kellen Jones on transfer from the Michigan Wolverines. The Houston native was the 12th ranked middle linebacker by Scout.com and was originally recruited by OU.

    He wasted no time in making his presence felt on the practice field. In a recent Tulsa World interview, Tom Wort talked about the newcomer. "He likes to talk. He doesn't even have pads on, and he's out there talkin' smack to the running backs. Kellen is one fiery dude.”

    Even with the high praise, don’t expect Kellen to be talking smack to Tulsa during the Sooners’ opening game. Brent Venerables puts things into perspective, saying “He's not like a normal freshman where you have four or five months to start to learn your playbook and watch video and work out with the guys. He's got a heart of gold and a motor. But he's got to get in shape, too.”

    Keep an eye on this “fiery dude” over the next few seasons. He has the attitude to lead a defense, which is a great place to start and impossible to coach.

More from Eric Pennell

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    Eric Pennell is an up-and-coming columnist at Bleacher Report covering the NBA, NFL, College Football and EPL Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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