NORMAN — Ryan Reynolds looms as the man in the middle of Oklahoma's defense.
It's a tag that carries different connotations and mixed meanings with these Sooners, yet one Reynolds embraces just the same.
A junior trying to revive a frustrating injury-plagued career, Reynolds is OU's only experienced linebacker in a back seven undergoing major renovation. Furthermore, Reynolds' middle-man role is critical in projecting defensive stability, let alone excellence.
"It's everything,” said Sooners defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "Any great defense — any good defense — has to start up front and inside. That's the D-tackles and the Mike linebacker.
"Those guys at the Mike linebacker have to give you strength for the rest of your defense. If you have that, you can build from the inside out.”
That guy for the Sooners is Reynolds, who believes he's finally ready to unleash the potential that's been more curse than compliment so far.
"I like it,” Reynolds said. "I'm up for the challenge.”
Reynolds — and the Sooners — hold reason for optimism.
For the first time since the spring of 2006, the linebacker is healthy. This summer, he enjoyed a regular, although rigorous, OU offseason instead of rehabbing a major knee surgery like did the past two years.
"I'm feeling 100 percent, and it's made a huge difference in the way that I feel and the way that I move,” Reynolds said. "My speed and my quickness is all back to where it was before I got injured.
"It feels incredible. Especially after last year, going through the season with all the aches and pains that I had and feeling a step slower than I should have been. Now I'm finally back where I was. And I feel like I can play to my full potential.”
The potential has always tantalized OU coaches and fans.
Coming out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Reynolds was the nation's No. 2-rated linebacker and the No. 30-rated player overall by ESPN.com. His promise showed when he worked his way onto special teams as a true freshman, setting up what was supposed to be a long run as OU's next great linebacker.
But Reynolds missed the 2006 season in redshirt after ripping up a knee during offseason drills. Then, after rehabbing and returning to resume his chase for a major role a year ago, he tore another knee ligament in the spring, requiring more surgery and reducing his impact on the field.