NORMAN — Oklahoma freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander misjudged Notre Dame's first offensive play of the second half two weeks ago, leaving enough of a hole for George Atkinson III to sneak through and break away for an 80-yard touchdown.
“He learned a couple of tough lessons today,” linebackers coach Tim Kish said after the game. “He has some growing up to do. He played his heart out. We just have to keep getting him better to help down the road.”
That road ended up being a lot shorter than anyone expected.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops announced Sunday that senior linebacker Corey Nelson will probably miss the rest of the season with a partially torn pectoral muscle, an injury suffered in the third quarter of Saturday's 20-17 home win over TCU.
After Nelson's injury, Alexander saw an increase in playing time that's likely to continue next weekend in the Red River Rivalry against Texas.
Alexander (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) has appeared in all five of Oklahoma's games this season, even earning a start against Tulsa on Sept. 21. He's made 10 tackles as the Sooners' top reserve linebacker.
The Tulsa Washington product signed with OU last February after originally committing to Arkansas as a safety.
The versatile Alexander played safety, defensive end and linebacker during his high school career.
“He's playing really well,” Stoops said of Alexander last week. “I'm really excited about him, and he's going to be a great football player, a really good football player.”
He'll have big shoes to fill. Nelson, a Dallas native and a team captain, had recorded 27 tackles, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and a sack through the first five games of this season.
Nelson also returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown in that win at Notre Dame.
The Skyline (Dallas) High product was considered one of the nation's top linebacker recruits in the class of 2010. He was committed to Texas A&M until signing day, when he flipped to the Sooners.
In the spring of 2011, Stoops said Nelson looked like “the best player out there on defense ... In fact, it's not even close.”
Nelson, like all OU linebackers, struggled late last season, when defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' schemes essentially took them off the field for long stretches of games against high-octane, spread offenses.
He admitted last spring that he considered leaving OU, but was convinced to stay by coaches who insisted he would be a major part of the 2013 defense.
Through five games, that promise held true. Sophomore Frank Shannon and Nelson are the two leading tacklers on the team, and OU has kept at least two linebackers on the field virtually at all times.
During fall camp, Nelson heaped praise on the young OU linebackers, especially Alexander and sophomore Eric Striker, who has started four games this year.
“Eventually, they're going to be the face of the OU linebacker corps and the OU defense in general these upcoming years,” Nelson said. “Those guys have really stepped to the plate and have really been making plays.”