NORMAN — More than once this spring, Bob Stoops called sophomore-to-be Corey Nelson “the best player” on the Oklahoma defense.
And that at times, “it wasn't even close.”
Problem is, Nelson isn't a starter. And the man he backs up at weakside linebacker — Travis Lewis — might be the preseason pick for conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, “That's got to be the best first- and second-teamers at that position anywhere.”
Nelson, however, won't continue being just a second-teamer.
The Sooners have been hinting at different ways they might get Nelson on the field next season.
"We're going to get him on,” Stoops said. "We'll find those opportunities — for sure."
Here are four possible ways the Sooners might utilize Nelson defensively in 2011:
1. Bring back the “Hammer” role
Last year, OU faced a similar predicament with defensive end Ronnell Lewis — how to get a young, talented backup on the field?
Before Lewis suffered a midseason knee injury, Venables found him a role. On third down passing situations, the Sooners inserted Lewis in the game and subbed out a defensive tackle. In this role, Lewis basically had one responsibility. Pick a gap and get after the passer.
Venables could do the same with Nelson. In fact, the Sooners showed some of this in the spring game, with Nelson coming off the edge as a fourth linebacker.
A blitzing Nelson, who notched four tackles and a sack in the spring game, could be treacherous for opposing quarterbacks on third-and-long next season.
2. Role out the odd-man front
Not even Stoops could have predicted how wildly successful OU would be switching its base defense to an odd-man front — comprised of three defensive ends and one defensive tackle — the final three games of last season.
It was defensive end Jeremy Beal's versatility to play outside linebacker that allowed the defensive alignment to work so well. OU could utilize the speed of an odd-man front again next season, only with Nelson manning Beal's role as the stand-up defensive end/outside linebacker.
3. Give Travis a break
Since 2007, Travis Lewis has taken almost every defensive snap at weakside linebacker. Venables doesn't like to substitute his starters out very often. But it's hard to believe that Lewis wouldn't be stronger going into the fourth quarter if he had a couple more series of relief.
In Nelson, the Sooners would have the luxury of resting Lewis without too much of a drop-off.
4. Swing Travis to the middle
There's no denying the defense took a turn for the better in 2010 when veteran middle linebacker Austin Box returned to the starting lineup following a preseason back injury that caused him to miss five games. There's also no denying that sophomore-to-be Tom Wort will be sharper because of the experience he gained as a freshman filling in for Box.
But even though the quality depth at middle linebacker is there, OU could try bringing Nelson in on the weakside while swinging Lewis to the middle in spots to get its speediest linebacking combination on the field simultaneously.
Such a mix — which would also feature thoroughbred nickelback Tony Jefferson — could be particularly effective in combating the speed of mobile quarterbacks like Florida State's E.J. Manuel.