- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s a good thing Corey Nelson spent his final summer in Norman working out.
A lot will be placed on the shoulders of the Oklahoma linebacker this season. His future in football, the Sooners’ chances of defensive success and the perception of the role of the linebackers in Mike Stoops' defense could be directly impacted by the performance of Nelson in 2013.
“This is a very big year for me; it’s my last year,” Nelson said. “I feel like I have a lot to prove since last year was a down year.”
Nelson drew a lot of criticism as a junior as the role of the linebackers decreased during Mike Stoops’ first season running the defense after his stint as head coach at Arizona. As Stoops leaned more on defensive backs, questions about why linebackers weren’t on the field ran rampant. Was it a bad decision by OU’s defensive coordinator or was his hand forced by lackluster play from OU's linebackers, including Nelson?
It was probably a combination of both. The linebackers were far from dominant as a whole and Nelson finished with 47 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, as a junior. It was a significant drop in production from his 58 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a sophomore.
Nelson felt disappointment and blame in the weeks following the 2012 season. But that disappointment eventually wore off, thanks in part to conversations with linebackers coach Tim Kish, and Nelson turned his focus toward 2013.
“I really refocused my whole situation,” he said. “I understood the situation could have been worse. After that I was able to accept and buy in to what Coach Kish and Coach Stoops wanted. That change happened instantly. I was able to give everything I had to this program.”
The Sooners hope that what Nelson is able to give is more than they’ve seen from him in previous seasons. Oklahoma's coaches have plans to involve the linebackers much more this season and will be counting on Nelson, the lone senior of the group, to lead the way.
“He’ll have a big role in what we’re doing,” Mike Stoops said.
Nelson is the Sooners’ top linebacker with sophomore Frank Shannon and junior Aaron Franklin set to be key contributors. Add in true freshmen Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, who Bob Stoops expects to play, and Nelson’s leadership will be critical this fall.
“Corey has been awesome,” Bob Stoops said. “His attitude, and the way he’s been working and speaking up. He is definitely filling that [leadership role] in all kinds of ways.”
The attitude change from Nelson is a sign of mended fences between Nelson and the coaching staff after a few rough moments last season. And the senior is excited the coaches now view him as a core leader.
“They look at me as a leader, one of the guys they have to trust because I’m a senior this year,” he said. “With that comes great responsibility.”
19hJake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon