Multiple middle linebackers challenges OU

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Breaking in four different starting middle linebackers during a four-game span earlier this season provided some trying moments for Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

The Sooners' instability in the middle came after starter Ryan Reynolds sustained a season-ending knee injury against Texas. The Sooners started safety Nic Harris as a stopgap the following week before inserting Austin Box into the lineup for their next game.

But Box was injured on the opening kickoff, sending Mike Balogun into the game. Box started the following week and finished the season before he was hurt again against Oklahoma State, providing more instability in the middle than in any of Venables' 10-year tenure with the Sooners.

The confusion was exhibited against Kansas State after Box's early injury.

"I thought I made it simple when I told them for two days I was going to call a zone blitz," Venables said. "Then Austin gets hurt and I've got a new starter. The field was to the left and we made it to the right call. But we had the Keystone Cops running into each other out there good for plus-18 (an 18-yard gain) on the first play. That was indicative of how it's gone."

But the Sooners have settled down to become an opportunistic unit as the season progressed with Box's return to the lineup. And while the defense isn't as productive as some of Venables' previous units in terms of points allowed and yards allowed, it has developed a knack for making big plays.

The Sooners rank second nationally in turnover margin (+1.69 per game) and have produced 26 takeaways in the last seven games. Oklahoma also has produced 42 sacks this season to rank third nationally, including 19 sacks in the last five games.

"It took us about two games to figure out where we were, who was going to call things and who was comfortable," Venables said. "But after that it allowed us to go where we are."

The transformation has been one of the most remarkable that Venables has seen during the course of a season.

"Since the Nebraska game, you've seen a maturation take place in the unit," Venables said. "There's a comfort level there. The aggressiveness has gone up with the guys getting more and more comfortable. A lot of young guys are figuring things out. In money situations, our guys have been successful."

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is comfortable with his rotation at middle linebacker. Box is set to return to action and Balogun is becoming more comfortable with additional work at the position as the Sooners prepare for Thursday's FedEx BCS National Championship Game against Florida.

Stoops said Sunday that Box is becoming more ready for action with each practice.

"He's loosening up and moving around pretty well," Stoops said. "He will play, we'll see how much."

And Balogun, who was seldom used before he was thrust into the lineup against Kansas State, also is becoming more proficient in Oklahoma's defense with a month of practice since the season ended.

"He's doing really well," Stoops said. "Naturally, the more snaps you get, the better and more comfortable you are. Mike is doing that and he's quite a bit further along than he was at the championship game."