NORMAN, Okla. -- Penn State might call itself “Linebacker U.” But Oklahoma has a linebacking tradition that takes a backseat to no one.
The Sooners claim almost as many former first-team All-American linebackers as Penn State. And from Brian Bosworth to Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma boasts more Butkus Award winners than anyone, including the Nittany Lions.
Last Saturday in South Bend, that tradition came back to life. Spearheaded by their linebackers, the Sooners jumped out to a two-touchdown lead, then held off Notre Dame, 35-21.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be here,” senior linebacker Corey Nelson said. “Linebackers taking charge, leading the defense and making plays.
“That’s how it’s always been at Oklahoma.”
Well, not always exactly.
In 2012, linebacker became almost a foreign word.
In his first year back as defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops became so disenchanted with how his linebackers matched up with the fast pace offenses of the Big 12, he yanked them off the field altogether the last month of the season.
The ploy hardly worked.
To West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, Oklahoma surrendered 344 yards on the ground in a narrow November shootout victory in Morgantown.
In the following weeks, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel ran wild over the Sooners, too, prompting Stoops to shelve the no-linebacker defense and go back to the drawing board during the offseason.
“Last year was a whole lot different,” Nelson said.
Especially for the linebackers.
During the summer, Stoops installed a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that so far has worked wonders, largely because he’s unleashed a corps of speedy linebackers who have proven to have a nose for the football. And opposing quarterbacks.
On the third play from scrimmage in South Bend, Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker came peeling around the edge and slammed into the blindside of quarterback Tommy Rees. The ball popped in the air into the arms of Nelson, who dashed 24 yards for the defensive touchdown.
“They let me free and I had to kill ‘em,” said Striker, with a quote so brash the “Boz” would be proud.
On Notre Dame’s next offensive play, Frank Shannon backpedaled into coverage, intercepted a tipped pass despite wearing a cast on his right wrist and bounded along the sidelines to set up another touchdown.
Less than three minutes into the game, Oklahoma’s linebackers frenetically had propelled the Sooners to a 14-0 lead.
“The coaches are doing a good job of putting us in the right spots,” Shannon said. “Giving us good opportunities and chance to show what we got.”
And they've been doing it all season. Through four games, OU is giving up just 299.5 yards and 12 points per game.
And, so far, these linebackers are quickly showing they can hang with some of the best OU has produced. That’s no small feat.
Dating back to the days of Bud Wilkinson, every Sooners dynasty has included top-flight linebacking corps.
In 1956, Jerry Tubbs nearly won the Heisman Trophy as a linebacker and center. That tradition continued under Barry Switzer, who coached two-time, first-team All-American linebackers Rod Shoate (1972-74), Daryl Hunt (1975-78), George Cumby (1975-79) and Bosworth (1984-86), who also remains the only two-time winner of the Butkus Award, given annually to college football’s top linebacker.
Bob Stoops has coached two Butkus Award winners (Rocky Calmus and Lehman) and a host of slobber-knocking linebacking units. Calmus and Torrance Marshall formed the backbone of Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship defense. Lehman (2003), Rufus Alexander (2006) and Curtis Lofton (2007) earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“You see linebackers all over the wall in this place,” Striker said. “These guys were for real. Real serious back when.”
But as Oklahoma defenses slipped in recent years, so did the position. The Sooners scavenged the country for linebacker help in their most recent recruiting class, but came up empty. Suddenly, a school with one of college football’s proudest traditions couldn’t sign a linebacker. But the way Nelson, Shannon and Striker are playing, that should no longer be a problem.
Oklahoma is playing some defense again. And one of college football’s Linebacker U’s appears to be on its way back in Norman.
“We’re trying to keep that going,” Striker said. “You want to keep that going.
“We want to keep it great here.”