NORMAN — Travis Lewis' injury raises several questions. But one question no longer is an issue: Where will Corey Nelson play? Nelson was being auditioned for the Sooners' hybrid nickelback position before Lewis suffered a broken toe Monday at practice. With Lewis projected to be sidelined eight weeks, Nelson will fill in for Lewis at weakside linebacker. Tony Jefferson, who was working out at free safety, stays at nickelback. Javon Harris is the starting free safety. Selected the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis will not undergo surgery. OU trainer Scott Anderson said treatment consists of rest and immobilization. Lewis has been OU's leading tackler three consecutive seasons, averaging 121 tackles a year. He's projected to return Texas week (Oct. 8). But doctors' estimates sometimes are conservative. Can Lewis return in less than six weeks for a top 10 showdown Sept. 17 at Florida State or the conference opener the following week, Sept. 24 against nationally ranked Missouri? While Nelson is as talented as Lewis, he lacks experience. Nelson will make his debut as a starter Sept. 3 against Tulsa. Lewis has a team-high 41 career starts. There are three additional domino effects: * Lewis is the Sooners' emotional leader. Who steps up as the defensive leader while he's sidelined? * Harris, not Jefferson, will fill All-American free safety Quinton Carter's vacancy. * It impacts linebacker depth. Jaydan Bird probably will back up middle linebacker Tom Wort and Nelson. Lewis will still be involved in team meetings and can provide advice from the sidelines. But the importance of on-the-field leadership was evident late last season. OU's defense jelled during a five-game winning streak after middle linebacker Austin Box returned to call the signals. The Sooners will open the season in 24 days without Lewis or Box, who died in May because of a toxic mix of pain pills. Coaches, though, have raved about Nelson. Bob Stoops said the sophomore from Dallas Skyline had as good a spring as anyone on the roster, which is why defensive coordinator Brent Venables was trying to find Nelson a position. “What we're looking for more than anything is to find ways to get players on the field that have shown the knack the last year for making plays, instinctive guys,” Venables said Saturday at Media Day. “It's a challenge to find ways to fit them on the field.” That's no longer an issue. Nelson will fill in for Lewis, who has been a huge Nelson fan since he arrived on campus. “You better look out for that guy,” Lewis said last season. “He's going to be better than I was.” At Big 12 Media Day in Dallas, Lewis compared Nelson's ball-hawking skills to Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. “He has tremendous instincts,” Lewis said. “His greatest asset is finding the ball. He's young. He's hungry. We need to get him on the field any way we can.” Ironically, his spot on the field is Lewis' position. Nelson's game might resemble Polamalu's relentless pursuit. But their personalities and hair styles are distinct opposites. Polamalu is brash, outspoken. Nelson has a quiet confidence. Nelson's hair is closely shaved. Polamalu's billowing curly locks go halfway down his back, obscuring the name on his jersey. If he's going to be compared to Polamalu, maybe Nelson needs to grow his hair out. “I'll work on that,” Nelson said, smiling. His immediate concern is filling in for his mentor. The position might be different than projected when two-a-days began last week, but Nelson has gained confidence. “I believe in myself and I believe in the players around me. That helps a lot,” Nelson said. “I'm just trying to work hard, stay focused and stay humble.”
Oklahoma's reserve linebackers Joseph Ibiloye: Started four games last season at strongside linebacker. Jaydan Bird: Most likely the backup to both Tom Wort and Corey Nelson. Daniel Franklin: Could be added to the two-deep roster behind Nelson. Londell Taylor: Former minor league baseball player could get an opportunity. Rashod Favors: A redshirt freshman from Fort Worth. Aaron Franklin: A redshirt freshman from Marshall, Texas. P.L. Lindley: True freshman from Round Rock can play inside and outside. Frank Shannon: True freshman from Dallas Skyline more of a nickel back.