NORMAN — While Oklahoma's defense was struggling last fall, the Sooners' coaches were reacting on the recruiting trail.
The two linebackers the Sooners signed in the 2013 class — Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans — might not pay big dividends immediately, but they are making an early impression.
“I love them both,” coach Bob Stoops said. “They're really good players and really pretty natural in there.”
The linebackers didn't play much of a part near the end of last season, as OU gave up an average of more than 280 rushing yards per game in its last five games. West Virginia alone rushed for 458 yards against the Sooners.
As defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and linebackers coach Tim Kish were feeling their way to try to slow down the high-powered Big 12 passing attacks during their first year, they sold out to slow down the pass and left themselves vulnerable against the run.
“I think our scheme did a little bit of an injustice to our linebackers a year ago,” Mike Stoops said in the spring.
Part of their next move was to recruit a different kind of linebacker — mainly faster players who have the ability to help out in coverage when warranted but also with the run-stopping ability of a traditional linebacker.
Corey Nelson said linebackers have to be faster with the way the game is played in the conference.
“It's all about speed,” the senior linebacker said. “If you look at the Big 12, and it's all the spread offense and the zone-read option and QBs throwing the ball all over the place, the linebackers like us in the Big 12 have to be able to run.”
While Evans played linebacker as a senior at Norman North, he was a converted defensive back and was still quick enough to be a dangerous return threat.
Alexander was equally as versatile, spending time in the secondary as well as at defensive end at Tulsa Washington.
“They move just like linebackers should,” Mike Stoops said. “They're big. They're athletic. They're fast; they're seeing things the right way.
“The more repetitions they get, their ability to find the ball will become greater and greater. They're young linebackers. They're not robotic. They float to the football the way you're supposed to.”
They're also opening the eyes of their teammates.
Defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue talked about both, but gushed about what he's seen from Alexander so far.
“Dom is ready to get out there and play football,” Ndulue said. “He doesn't look like a freshman that's timid. He's just ready to get out there and play.”
With Nelson and Frank Shannon returning, neither freshman is expected to start, but they both could see playing time.
While Sooners coaches aren't putting too much pressure on the freshmen to solve the problems of the defense, Bob Stoops said he's been impressed after just a handful of practices.
“I say it a lot, but linebackers and safeties, you shouldn't have to tell them a whole bunch,” he said. “The really great ones, they just feel their way. They feel their way and they show up at the ball. Just in a few days, those guys are showing that. They have a really good knack for feeling the ball and where they need to be.”