NORMAN — When Tom Wort suffered a major knee injury his freshman year, Austin Box helped keep his spirits up during the long, tedious rehabilitation process.
When Wort at times struggled last season in the heart of Oklahoma's defense, Box was on the sideline providing encouragement and tutelage.
Oklahoma coaches and teammates say the sophomore middle linebacker's play during two-a-days has been a “night and day difference” from a year ago, when Wort sometimes was out of position, leading to some big plays.
Determined to learn from last year's ups and downs, Wort put in the work this summer. In the weight room. In the film room. Every time he needed extra motivation he thought about Box, his close friend who died three months ago from a toxic mix of painkillers.
“I'm playing for him,” Wort said. “The only reason I'm able to play this game is I play with heart. He's heavy on my heart, giving me even more reason to play with heart. That's the way I'm going to honor him.”
Friends on and off the field, Wort and Box competed for the middle linebacker job last fall. When Box was sidelined early in two-a-days with a back injury, Wort, a redshirt freshman, was thrown into the fire.
Wort finished with 66 tackles. He was named second-team Freshman All-American by one publication. But several times his motor ran too fast.
“I would get to the sidelines, and Austin would tell me what happened,” Wort said. “If I made a play, he was right there celebrating with me. It was like having another coach. He helped me out, there's no doubt about it. To have an older guy look after you is priceless.”
When Box returned midway through the season, he eventually replaced Wort. The change solidified the defense. The Sooners went on a five-game winning streak. Wort, though, still played a few series every game.
“I never felt I wasn't supposed to be on the field,” Wort said. “Being out there, gaining experience, of course you're going to get better.”
Coach Bob Stoops said Wort is a lot better.
One morning early in fall camp, Stoops sauntered over to Wort during stretching drills to compliment Wort's improvement over the summer.
“Like night and day from a year ago,” Stoops said. “His understanding, where to be and what to do, his confidence and his knee are all better. Tom has really changed.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables echoed Stoops' assessment, stating Wort has a more in-depth understanding of the defense, the X's and O's, the whys and the hows.
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