NORMAN — Entering the 2016 season with the most new faces for OU, the 2017 Sooner linebacker corps has quickly established itself as one of the deeper positions on the defensive side of the ball.
The Sooners’ linebacker unit will be a young but talented group. The biggest void comes from the departure of middle linebacker Jordan Evans, a 2016 first-team All-Big 12 selection who led OU with 98 tackles and four interceptions last season. The Sooners must not only search to replace the productivity left by the Cincinnati Bengals’ sixth-round pick, but also the leadership needed at the position.
Senior Emmanuel Beal made nine starts alongside Evans last season, but with OU transitioning to a 4-3 defense, greater competition for a starting role is to be expected. Standing 6-0 and weighing 218 pounds, Beal is a touch smaller than a prototypical linebacker but makes up for it with quickness, speed and a physical presence. Beal’s 81 tackles a year ago make him the team’s top leading returner in that category, while his two forced fumbles were most on the team last season.
Also gunning for a job on the inside are Curtis Bolton and Jon-Michael Terry. Bolton, a 6-1, 220-pound junior, has served as a key member on the Sooners’ special teams unit the past two seasons, while Terry is a 6-2, 240-pound redshirt freshman eager to make his mark with a year of tutelage under his belt.
The outside linebacker unit, coached by defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, should be the strength of OU’s linebacker corps. Perhaps the team’s best defender in 2016, redshirt senior Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns to lead the Sooners’ pass rush. Okoronkwo ranked third on the team with 71 tackles in 2016 and posted team-bests with 12.0 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks, the latter of which ranked third in the Big 12 as he proved to be a consistent problem for opposing signal callers. Okoronkwo, who will also work at defensive end, has a great ability to maneuver around offensive tackles with his speed and is in position to wreak havoc in the opponents’ backfield once again this year.
Opposite Okoronkwo, sophomore Caleb Kelly established himself as a key starter for the second half of the 2016 season. The former five-star recruit made a big impact down the stretch as the Sooner defense surrendered just under 20 points per contest in the final six outings Kelly started. Recognized as the 14th overall recruit in his class by Rivals and 17th by Scout, Kelly just scratched the surface of his potential last year. The Sooners will certainly expect even bigger things from the 6-3, 229-pound Fresno, Calif., product this season.
Redshirt sophomore Ricky DeBerry, another former five-star recruit, returned to outside linebacker again after a brief stint on the inside in the spring. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, the Sooners are hopeful to transfer DeBerry’s natural athletic talent into production on game day. Sophomore Mark Jackson, Jr., a consensus four-star recruit a couple years ago who registered a pair of tackles in five appearances last season, will also battle for time at the position.
The Sooners also welcome four freshman linebackers with Army All-Americans Levi Draper and Addison Gumbs earning top billing at the inside and outside spots, respectively. K’Jakyre Daley (outside) and Kenneth Murray (inside) created a buzz upon arriving in Norman and have the potential to play in year one. Gumbs and Daley could also see time at defensive end.