2018 Position Preview: Linebackers
NORMAN — The depth of Oklahoma's linebacking corps will be a point of strength for the Sooners' defense in 2018, despite losing two of its top playmakers from a year ago.
OU looks to fill the voids left by leading tackler Emmanuel Beal and first-team All-American Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Despite being undersized, Beal used his speed and physicality at the middle linebacker spot to become one of the team's most consistent players on defense. He paced the Sooners in tackles 2017 and ranked second in 2016, and was a key leader for a position group that had limited depth due to early season injuries a year ago.
Okoronkwo's production as an edge rusher was key to OU's ability to disrupt opponent backfields the last two seasons. He recorded 17 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss during that period and was named the 2017 Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. The Sooners must not only look to replace the productivity left by the Los Angeles Rams' fifth-round draft pick, but the leadership he provided for the entire unit.
Sophomore Kenneth Murray anchors Tim Kish's inside linebackers group. The 2017 Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year started all 14 games a year ago and ranked second on the team with 78 tackles. Murray's leadership skills have been on display throughout the offseason. He was the only sophomore to represent a team at Big 12 Media Days in July and has been pointed to by multiple teammates as the leader of OU's linebackers unit.
Junior Caleb Kelly will be a key cog inside for the Sooners as he transitions to the Will linebacker spot from the Sam. The Californian has made 19 starts over the last two seasons and has registered 92 tackles. The former five-star recruit hopes to capitalize on the move to the inside and continue to build off his strong finish to the 2017 season when he made several big plays. Included were an acrobatic interception against Texas Tech, a fumble return for a touchdown against TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game and a forced fumble that was returned for a TD versus Georgia in the College Football Playoff.
Redshirt senior Curtis Bolton and redshirt sophomores Jon-Michael Terry and Bryan Mead provide key depth for the Sooners on the inside. Bolton, also a staple on OU's special teams units, appeared in four games in 2017 before sustaining a season-ending injury at Baylor. Terry played in 13 of 14 games last year and is eager to increase his production after gaining a full season of experience. Mead also saw action in 13 contests in a reserve role and logged seven tackles.
The outside linebacker unit, coached by defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, looks to find a replacement for Okoronkwo as the team's top pass rusher. Junior Mark Jackson Jr. has shown flashes on the edge as a physical presence and could become Okoronkwo's heir apparent. Jackson made seven tackles and forced a fumble in 2017, and will look to play a bigger role this season.
Sophomore Addison Gumbs, a prized 2017 recruit who saw action in four games last season, possesses a large frame at 6-3 and 253 pounds, and also figures to push for significantly increased playing time on the outside.
OU will also rely on a highly regarded group of redshirt freshmen in 2018. Levi Draper and will vie for playing time on the inside after redshirting in 2017. He suffered an injury during fall camp last season, but rehabbed and shined in the Sooners' spring game. Ryan Jones was a productive receiver in high school who worked as a defensive back during his 2017 redshirt year, and then moved to outside linebacker after last season. His speed and cover ability make him an intriguing prospect, even though he's still new to the position. K'Jakyre Daley also aims to break into the outside backers rotation following a redshirt campaign.
Three talented true freshmen could also make waves. Outside backer Nik Bonitto (Under Armour) and inside backer DaShaun White (U.S. Army) were both high school All-Americans and consensus four-star recruits last season. The athletic Brian Asamoah is an inside linebacker who also starred as a high school running back, racking up 1,697 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns during his prep career in Ohio.