NORMAN, Okla. -- With 2:34 left in the third quarter, Corey Nelson lay prone on the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf. Just two minutes earlier, the Oklahoma senior linebacker had stuffed TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin with a open-field tackle inside the Sooners’ 10-yard line, forcing the Horned Frogs to settle for a field goal.
In less than five minutes the Sooners went from leaning on Nelson as the playmaking anchor of a revived OU defensive to searching for a permanent replacement.
Nelson tore his pectoral muscle during OU's 20-17 win last Saturday against the Horned Frogs, an injury that will force him to miss the remainder of the season. True freshman Dominique Alexander is slated to replace Nelson in the OU defense but it is a devastating loss. Nelson was arguably the Sooners’ best defender through the first five games with 27 tackles including three tackles for loss, five passes defended, three quarterback hurries and one interception.
“He’s a big leader for us and he’s had a spectacular year,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “His big play ability and ability to find the football, those are things we’ll miss but other guys will have to pick up the slack and this will be a good opportunity for Dominique.”
Alexander has seen extensive action in backup duty during the first five games of his college career and the buzz about his playmaking ability began as soon as he arrived on campus this summer. The Sooners have high hopes for the Tulsa, Okla. native, starting with the Red River Rivalry against Texas on Saturday.
“He’s going to be an unbelievable player, hopefully it [happens] Saturday,” Stoops said. “Those are some big shoes to fill but it’s good that Dominique Alexander has [played] some games for us already this season. He knows what it feels like, obviously he’ll play more than previous games but we feel very confident in his abilities.”
Some people shudder to think of leaning on a true freshman against the Longhorns but Alexander could be better prepared than most youngsters. He’s been a member of the Sooners’ 3-4 personnel grouping throughout the season, playing alongside Nelson, Eric Striker and Frank Shannon when opponents go to bigger personnel. He saw significant snaps against Notre Dame, recording four tackles against the Irish but also making a mental mistake that contributed to a long Irish touchdown run.
Alexander stepped in for Nelson and played the entire fourth quarter with the starting defense against TCU. He got much-needed experience in a little over a quarter of action as Nelson’s replacement.
“Being able to play every snap like that, it really helped me,” Alexander said. “The tempo, it’s not like you play one play then go to the sideline so I got to see what the tempo is like, the line moving faster, the ball coming out quicker, it really helped. I’m going to be ready.”
There’s no reason to think otherwise. When he’s gotten the opportunity to play, Alexander has consistently been around the football. He’s getting more and more comfortable with the demands of college football with each snap and insists he’s no longer thinking when he’s on the field, just playing.
“I’m playing on instinct,” he said. “Against TCU, I was playing on instinct, against Notre Dame, I hesitated a lot. I’m playing on instinct because if you’re playing slow you’re not playing fast and you can’t play good football if you’re not playing fast.”
The Sooners’ coaches have admitted the loss of Nelson is a significant blow but they have a next man up mentality and confidence in Alexander despite his youth.
“He’s got to play, nobody cares how many games you’ve played,” Stoops said. “If he lines up he’s got an expectation and a confident way about him.”
With Aaron Franklin giving OU additional options at linebacker, don’t expect the freshman to shoulder the entire load of replacing Nelson but he will definitely be in the crosshairs at the Cotton Bowl.
“It’s not really a lot more pressure, you just have to continue doing what you’re doing,” Alexander said. “Corey told me it’s my time now and he’ll be there with me every step of the way.”