NORMAN — Corey Nelson has said many times since the spring that he's made peace with last fall's struggle to get on the field and is excited about what his senior year holds.
But speaking to reporters Monday, five days before Oklahoma's 2013 season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Nelson clearly remains a little irked by his unit's late-2012 irrelevancy.
The senior linebacker watched helplessly from the sideline as Tavon Austin's 344 rushing yards torched the Sooners in a narrow, high-scoring victory over West Virginia. In shoot-out wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State — and in Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl rout of OU — Nelson and the Sooner linebackers were similarly uninvolved.
“It still fuels me because we didn't really have linebackers out there to take hold of the situation,” Nelson said Monday. “To really grab the bull by the horns and take control of, ‘OK, this is what the defense needs to do, this is what we're gonna do and this is how we're gonna do it.' We didn't have that control there during those games.”
Nelson speaks like a leader, and his teammates made that title official by voting him as one of six team captains.
Fullback Trey Millard, another senior captain seeking an expanded role in 2013, said he notices a difference in Nelson this year. The two collide on a fairly regular basis in practice.
“I think he's due for a really good year,” Millard said. “He's definitely got some technique things down that I don't think he had last year. He's continued to become a tougher person to block for me.”
Millard has been an important piece of Oklahoma's offense since his true freshman year in 2010, but only has 140 career offensive touches.
In those rushes and catches, Millard has shown big-play ability, versatility and toughness, causing a chorus of fans and media to question his relatively few chances to showcase that talent.
Millard himself hasn't complained about his role, regularly repeating that he's happy to do anything that helps the team win.
Still, he said Monday he expects to see more time this season at tight end, a position he's played on a part-time basis the past few years.
The Sooners' backfield is loaded, with talented, experienced seniors Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch all fighting for carries. At tight end, though, OU enters 2013 with lots of questions after the unit failed to produce much last year.
Millard said he and fellow fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Palange are sharing a meeting room with tight ends and working with new assistant coach Jay Boulware.
“Yeah, I think so,” Millard responded Monday when asked if he'd play more at tight end this year. “Just depends on how they move me around. That's part of the reason I came back, to gain that aspect. If I do better, I'm sure they'll put me in more.”
Millard considered skipping his senior season and entering the 2013 NFL Draft. He said NFL scouts have indicated he could play a number of roles at that level, including running back, fullback and tight end.
After being relegated to the sideline for much of November, December and January, middle linebacker Tom Wort opted to leave Oklahoma, giving up his last season of college eligibility.
Nelson admitted last spring that he considered following Wort out the door, but feels much more encouraged that linebackers will stay involved in 2013 after long, extensive talks with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and position coach Tim Kish.
“Coach Kish always tells us, it starts with the linebackers,” Nelson said. “We control the defense.
“If the defense is going to be good this year, it's going to be because of the linebackers. If the defense is going to be bad this year, it's going to be because of the linebackers.”