Freshmen LBs signify Sooners' evolution

NORMAN, Okla. -- At this time last year Jordan Evans was doing it all for Norman (Okla.) North High School. He was returning kicks, playing defensive end and linebacker and generally making plays from sideline to sideline for his high school team.

In a matchup of top-15 teams on Saturday, Evans was a savior for Oklahoma.

Evans stepped in after linebacker Frank Shannon was injured, recording eight tackles and one pass breakup in Oklahoma’s 38-30 win over Texas Tech. Alongside Evans, fellow true freshman Dominique Alexander, who has replaced injured senior Corey Nelson, finished with four tackles and one quarterback hurry.

“Compliments to two true freshmen out there at linebacker playing the whole way,” coach Bob Stoops said on Saturday. “Jordan Evans knocked some balls down and really did a good job as did Dominique [Alexander]. I thought those guys, again, young true freshmen in a big game like this, did an excellent job.”

Watching those guys excel had to be encouraging for Stoops and the defensive coaching staff. Not only because they’re still in the baby stages of their OU careers but also it was a sign that the increased emphasis on recruiting versatile defenders was paying off.

Evans played so many positions in high school there was uncertainty about where he may fit best in the Sooners defense. Alexander played multiple positions at Tulsa (Okla.) Washington, including safety.

And that versatility was one of the most intriguing aspects of signing Evans and Alexander last February. When the duo signed, Bob Stoops joked about Evans, saying “we’ll find a spot for him when he gets here.” Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said of Alexander, “Originally we were looking at him as a safety.” The word versatile was used to describe what intrigued the Sooners about both prospects.

Stoops entered the offseason wanting to make his defense more versatile to handle the spread offenses in the Big 12. Players like Alexander and Evans help achieve that goal, thus it’s no surprise they have risen up the depth chart in a span of months.

Their skill sets are a far cry from the normal linebacker of recent memory. Both can make plays in the open field, are athletic and comfortable in pass coverage. While the Sooners were late to offer both players, OU deserves credit for recognizing and projecting that Evans and Alexander would be terrific fits for the changes they were going to make this season.

Yet the surprising part of their early impact has been how quickly they’ve adapted to playing linebacker full time. Early in preseason camp Bob Stoops was already praising both freshmen.

“They have looked great,” Stoops said in early August. “Linebackers and safeties shouldn’t have to be told much. The really great ones just feel their way. They feel where the ball is and they show up at the ball. In a few days, these guys are showing that.”

Clearly it wasn’t just idle talk. Both players showed up on special teams in September before the injury bug hit this month and forced them into increased roles. Add Jordan Phillips’ injury and the introduction of Jordan Wade, a redshirt freshman, into the starting lineup and the Sooners’ defensive middle is full of first-year players.

“It doesn’t get much tougher from a defensive perspective when you’re playing with three freshmen right in the middle of your line,” Mike Stoops said. “There aren’t many people in America doing that. To beat a team of that caliber says a lot about those kids, and it says a lot about our team and our depth.”

And it also says a lot about the Sooners' evolving priorities when they evaluate players to recruit and bring into their defense.