Friday, December 13, 2002
Oklahoma's Rock(y) solid on defense
By Marc Connolly
On one side stands Jonathan Beasley, Kansas State's elusive quarterback whose athleticism and versatility make him the embodiment of the quintessential modern-day signal-caller. On the other side stands Oklahoma's stud linebacker Rocky Calmus, who has the same qualities as the beloved fictional boxer he shares a first name with: an overachieving ball of heart and fire with altar boy politeness and a style as flashy as soap.
Expect KSU's futuristic Jonathan E. to meet OU's Dick Butkus throwback in enough violent collisions on Saturday to make a Volvo tester jealous.
Instead of joining his white-hot Sooners (5-0) for their wagon march into Manhattan, Kan., for Saturday's war of undefeated powers (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), Calmus could very well have been wearing the dark purple alongside Beasley and Co.
While leading Tulsa's Jenks High School to the state football championship, displaying two-way dominance (as a fullback he rushed for 1,268 yards and scored 24 touchdowns, including five in the state title game), he narrowed down his choices to Oklahoma State, Kansas State and the school he grew up rooting for.
Old-timers, who cringe when passing open ball fields on sunny days knowing that kids prefer their PlayStations, chat rooms or 100-channel TVs, would love Calmus. He spent so much time playing football with his friends growing up, that he hardly remembers watching OU on television. Saturdays were spent at a place called the Quarterback Club, where you were either playing in your peewee or Pop Warner game or watching one. When the Sooners played a particularly big game, you didn't retreat inside, you simply had someone turn on the radio. Remember, we're talking about the late '80s/early '90s here, not the '50s.
|Rocky Calmus returned a Chris Simms interception last week for a touchdown.|
Yet the Sooners that ran rampant through the Big Eight in the '80s and stirred imaginations everywhere with characters like "The Boz" (Brian Bosworth) were nothing more than a Big XII also-ran when D-Day came for Calmus.
"At the time, we weren't doing so well," said Calmus, who leads the rock-solid Sooner defense with 41 tackles, including seven for a loss. "I really didn't know what would happen."
Kansas State loomed large on his mind since the Wildcat program was climbing into the national polls behind Beasley's predecessor, Michael Bishop. It wasn't until he stepped onto the Norman campus that he knew he couldn't flee to a rival of his home state.
I really wasn't too sure about Oklahoma until I took my visit," said Calmus. "All the players were cool and all. I loved the facilities as well as what was getting built. Plus, it was Oklahoma. I mean, that's the team I followed my whole life. I was a little iffy at the time because of how bad they were doing."
He turned his doubt about the program into one of the strengths for signing with OU. If anyone was to help save the once-proud program, why not a state hero from Tulsa.
"I wanted to help turn it (the program) all back around," said Calmus. "But I didn't know it'd turn around this quick. It's amazing what Coach (Bob) Stoops has done in such a short amount of time."
That it is. Just two seasons after the 6-2, 234-pound junior stepped in as a freshman and finished fifth on the squad with 55 tackles, the Sooners face a game that has BCS implications written all over it, and a perfect season to keep intact. And Calmus, now a captain and All-American candidate, is the key figure of a defense that has the unenviable task of stopping a prolific Kansas State offense that has scored on a startling 40 of 44 trips into the red zone (90.9 percent), including 33 touchdowns (75 percent).
As the weakside linebacker, Calmus will key on stopping Beasley, whether it be by dropping into pass coverage or by scaring the living daylights out of him with a jarring hit on one of his forays out of the pocket.
"We have to stop the run and contain Beasley," said Calmus, last week's Big XII Defensive Player of the Week for his role (four tackles, two pass deflections, one quarterback sack (-9 yards), and a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown) in Oklahoma's 63-14 dismantling of Texas last week. "He's a great athlete and a real big threat. He's the key to that entire offense. He runs it all. He makes a lot of audibles at the line, he can scramble, he can create off the scramble. They have their running game focused around the quarterback and you can only do that when you have a great athlete under center."
But ask the soft-talking linebacker to describe his own play and you'll hear the exact opposite.
"I'm not the greatest athlete or have the greatest physique, but the effort I give and how I work in practice or when lifting or studying by watching film -- that's the key for me," said Calmus, whose 33 tackles-for-loss puts him just seven away from breaking Bosworth's team record. "I have a knack for football and knowing where the ball's going to go and guessing the right plays. Certain plays, like a quarterback throwback, you can feel that stuff."
This knack sometimes pulls Calmus out of position, which drives his coaches insane at times; it also allows them the luxury of not having to shadow an athlete like Beasley.
"We don't spy quarterbacks in anything we do," said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. "We'll have to
blitz and contain him when we do. We need to make sure he can't scramble around and find receivers."
Calmus is looking forward to facing this kind of attack, as he believes his gut instincts will lead him straight to Beasley. Of course, when your unit is coming off of a game where you held the opponent to minus-7 yards rushing and only three trips over the 50-yard line, confidence is off the charts.
"Everybody is on a high," said Calmus, from a campus that had no classes on Monday to celebrate its blasting of Texas. "People are patting you on the back everywhere you go and even teachers are going out of their way to say, 'Good job' and things like that. We believe we can do it this year."
With OU's defense allowing just 13 points per game, they know exactly what it'll take to beat a program that has not only won 35 of its last 36 regular-season games, but that also totes a 25-game home winning streak at the snakepit that is Wagner Field.
"We have a goal as to how many points we want to give up," said Calmus, who is keeping this number secret. "With our offense, we know we'll be pretty unsuccessful if we reach that goal."
If you notice a protective rubberized cast on Calmus' broken thumb, don't be alarmed. This is a kid who played with a broken ankle in seventh grade and with a fractured bone in his leg last year ("Hey, it was OSU. I had to play against the Cowboys -- they got us the year before," said Calmus.). Nothing's going to get in the way of No. 20 and his dream season.
"This game is going to be amazing because it's the first time K-State and OU are going at it for a reason," said Calmus. "It could be for a BCS game. It's so exciting to get this rivalry back.
"I just feel so fortunate and so very blessed at this moment in time."
We'll have to wait and see if Beasley feels the same way on Saturday night, after meeting the man he nearly shared a locker room with.
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online.
||I wanted to help turn it (the program) all back around. But I didn't know it'd turn around this quick. It's amazing what Coach (Bob) Stoops has done in such a short amount of time. ”
||— Oklahoma LB Rocky Calmus