Brent Venables’ defense relies heavily on its linebackers.

As a result, it should come as no surprise that the Sooners’ linebacker play improved in 2023, as the defense made significant progress.

Oklahoma Sooners: Breaking News, Rumors & Highlights | Yardbarker

Danny Stutsman emerged as not only a strong leader on the field, but also the team’s heartbeat away from it, and OU’s middle linebacker was perhaps its most important player.

The speech given before the Texas game merely served as a soundtrack to another incredible season.

Stutsman finished as Oklahoma’s leading tackler with 104 total tackles, including three quarterback sacks, a team-high 16.0 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and a pick six against Tulsa.

Six quarters perfectly demonstrated Stutsman’s importance to the OU defense as a whole.

He landed awkwardly on his ankle just before halftime against Kansas and was unable to continue after the first play of the second half. As a result, the Sooners failed to make key stops late in Lawrence, handing Venables’ team its first loss of the season.

Stutsman was unable to recover in time to play in Bedlam the following week, and OU suffered another loss.

Oklahoma’s only loss in which Stutsman played all four quarters came against Arizona in the Alamo Bowl, where turnovers ultimately cost the Sooners the game.

Stutsman was a Butkus Award candidate until his injury, which prevented him from being named a semifinalist or finalist.

However, Venables’ linebacker room was anything but a one-trick pony.

Redshirt freshman Kip Lewis appeared out of nowhere, living up to the “ball magnet” nickname Venables bestowed on him earlier in the year.

Despite playing only 358 snaps, 238 fewer than Jaren Kanak, who started the year alongside Stutsman, according to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was second on the team with 66 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery.

Lewis’ ability to find the football was on full display against Texas.

Despite playing well in the early stages of the game, Lewis was at the heart of the Sooners’ goal line stand that kept Texas from reaching the 1-yard line, a performance that propelled him past Kanak as OU’s starter late in the season.

Kanak’s playing time was not reduced as a result of his poor performance.

Lewis was that good, as Kanak finished fourth on the team with 62 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes defended, and a forced fumble.

Kanak made an early impression, appearing all over the place in the first half of Oklahoma’s Big 12 opener against Cincinnati.

He combined with Kobie McKinzie to provide significant depth to the position.

McKinzie, a second-year Lubbock product, began to find his footing rotating on the inside midway through the season, and he took on a significant amount of the load when Stutsman was absent. He finished the year with 22 tackles and one tackle for loss, and he hopes to play a much larger role in 2024.

With four strong candidates for playing time on the inside, Dasan McCullough was left to wreak havoc at the cheetah linebacker position.

McCullough, a long body with a knack for screaming into the backfield off the edge, was an eraser if teams attempted to spread Oklahoma out along the line of scrimmage with swing passes or screens.

He recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and 300 tackles on 276 snaps this season, transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker in his first year with the Venables defense in Norman.

All of the depth built last season relegated two true freshmen, Lewis Carter and Samuel Omosigho, to primarily special teams duty, though Omosigho did work his way into the cheetah rotation late in the year when injuries mounted.

Omosigho and Carter each had seven tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss, laying a solid foundation for larger roles in 2024.

And all of those guys are scheduled to return next year.

New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Zac Alley will have plenty of talent and experience to work with in his room this spring, as Oklahoma’s linebackers were the most consistent piece of the Sooners’ improved defense, and they’ll set the tone for Oklahoma’s first Southeastern Conference game this fall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *