Plenty of names come to mind when thinking of Oklahoma’s defense.
Yet nobody is more important than Dominique Alexander.
The junior linebacker has been consistent and productive in the middle of Oklahoma’s defense, leading the team with 32 tackles in the first three games.
"He brings a lot of energy," Sanchez said. "Dom’s always talking, always encouraging. He brings that edge you need from one of your inside backers, that will pump up your defense to bring that tenacity."
If Oklahoma hopes to win a Big 12 title and enter the race for a spot in the College Football Playoff, Alexander could provide a platform to build upon. A starter since his freshman season, Alexander has started 24 of his 29 career games, bringing experience and playmaking to the middle of the defense.
"He played before his time, unfortunately, but all that stuff is now paying off for him because he has that experience and understands it," Oklahoma linebackers coach Tim Kish said.
Alexander was thrown into the lion’s den as a true freshman after being forced into the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to Corey Nelson in 2013. Alexander, who was earning praise and creating a buzz as a backup linebacker during his first few games as a Sooner, was thrust into the starting lineup against Texas and responded with a 19-tackle performance in his first collegiate start.
He’s grown by leaps and bounds since stepping on the field in the Red River Showdown as a freshman starter.
"Two and a half years in for him, it’s about understanding the speed of the game," Kish said. "He’s playing so much faster now because he’s not thinking as much. He understands our system better, he sees things faster, he’s improved to the point where it’s giving him a lot of success."
As a freshman Alexander was productive, finishing with 80 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one sack. As a sophomore the former high school safety was equally productive, finishing with 107 tackles including six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble. This season he’s averaging a career-high 10.6 tackles per game.
"[He’s] maturing as a player," Sanchez said. "The plays he wouldn’t make his freshman year he started making last year. Now, it’s like, 'When does Dom not make a play?'"
The Sooners ask a lot of Alexander in their system -- from blitzing the quarterback to dropping in coverage -- because they trust him to get the job done.
"He can do it all," Kish said. "He’s a great student of the game, he watches tons of film, he understands formations and he understands what offenses are trying to do to defeat us, that takes the thinking out of it when the ball is snapped for him. He’s so athletic, he has great fundamentals and techniques. He takes great angles in the run game, takes great drops in the pass game. All those things make him the best linebacker he can be."
Alexander could be the centerpiece as Oklahoma strives to shore up a defense that looked outstanding in its first two games -- allowing 3.23 yards per play to Akron and 3.34 yards per play to Tennessee -- before being overrun by Tulsa’s offense in Game 3 (6.63 yards per play, 603 total yards). His versatility is key, but his growth as a leader will be just as important against Big 12 offenses that are sure to put up points against the Sooners, thus testing the composure and leadership of the unit.
"Freshman year he really didn’t want to say anything," said Sanchez, who has started alongside Alexander in the defense for the past three seasons. "It [his vocal leadership] started last year, and this year he just took off with it, in the offseason especially. Now, during the season, he’s on top of it."
Alexander might not be the first name that comes to mind on a talented defense, but he could be the most important.
"He’s definitely a leader of our defense," Kish said. "Kids respect him, they know what he’s doing out there, how hard he plays and they respect his game and what he stands for. He’s an 'All-in' guy."