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Defensive Backing
Alexander, Latimer and bevy of young talent solidify OU’s linebacker corps

From Brian Bosworth and Danté Jones of the Eighties to Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman of the current decade, Oklahoma has produced some of the greatest college linebackers in recent memory.

Will Rufus Alexander this year add his name to the list of OU linebacking legends? Only time will tell, but the Baton Rouge, La., senior has put himself in position to do so.

Alexander was a consensus All-Big 12 Conference first team selection after leading the Sooners in tackles with 102, including 17 for losses, last fall. In a key road win over Nebraska, he recorded three sacks among his career-high 13 tackles.

Noting his impact and career progression — Alexander made All-Big 12 second team after a breakthrough 2004 campaign — The Sporting News just named Alexander its Big 12 Conference preseason defensive player of the year.

Also, he will be an early candidate for the Butkus Award, presented each year to college football’s top linebacker. In its history of just over 20 years, OU players have claimed four of them — Bosworth twice in 1985 and ’86, Calmus in 2001 and Lehman two seasons later.

OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables knows it’s both hard and unfair to bestow greatness on a player when there is still work to do and objectives to meet. Yet, Venables couldn’t help but say Alexander is worth mentioning in a conversation about elite OU linebackers.

“He’s in the same company as those other guys — a tremendous playmaker, one of the smarter linebackers we’ve had,” Venables said of the 6-foot-1, 231-pound senior. “Last year was his first full year of him being, what I felt, a complete player in terms of playing hard and being consistent. I’m expecting a stronger year this season.”

Alexander has the same expectations for himself. A hard-hitting defender who inspires the home crowd to chant “Ruuuuuuu-fus” with each tackle, Alexander has the self-motivation that drives him to become even better.

“I’ve always been eager to learn and I believe that has really helped my progress as a Division-I football player,” he said during spring practice. “I take everything to heart and do my best to apply what I’ve learned on the field. Add that to my instincts, and I think that’s what has helped make me the player I am.”

The Sooners will need every linebacker to share Alexander’s thirst for knowledge and hunger to excel. Beyond Alexander and Zach Latimer, the team has little proven experience at linebacker.

With young talent Ryan Reynolds tearing an anterior cruciate knee ligament after spring practice and without the services of now-graduated Clint Ingram, a bedrock on defense last season, OU’s thin though athletic linebacking corps is even thinner.

Venables said the unit should be fine barring further injuries, because the team normally uses just four or five linebackers in its rotation anyway. Watch for Lewis Baker, Demarrio Pleasant, Curtis Lofton and Lamont Robinson to join Alexander and Latimer in the linebacker mix.

Latimer, a senior from Denver, Colo., made 84 tackles in 2005, which trailed only Alexander on the team. Venables said the 6-2, 232-pound Latimer might have made even more stops if not for a nagging shoulder injury that dates back to high school. The shoulder flared up again during the spring, causing Latimer to miss some practice time, but Venables expected the linebacker to have full medical clearance sometime in June.

“I thought Zach really had a good year considering it was his first full-time year as a starter,” the defensive coordinator said. “It could have been a great year if he hadn’t been injured. … Some of that, too, was a lack of experience and assuredness on the field. But now he’ll be healthy with the shoulder and he will be more confident.”

With Latimer on the sidelines during a portion of the spring, Lofton took advantage by stepping in at middle linebacker and making coaches take notice. The Kingfisher, Okla., product saw sporadic duty last year as a freshman, yet managed to get in 10 of OU’s 12 games and even had a tackle-for-loss against Oklahoma State.

Venables said Lofton, a 6-1, 238-pounder, had “a strong spring” and should become a bigger factor this fall.

Robinson was a celebrated linebacker recruit in 2005, along with Lofton and Reynolds. Unlike the latter two, Robinson redshirted last fall.
Venables said the New Jersey resident is working hard to learn the system and understand what coaches require of him.

His team-oriented, workmanlike attitude, coupled with the athleticism within his 6-1, 225-pound body, should bode well for Robinson’s future.

Baker and Robinson are a pair of juniors counted upon to play a larger role. Baker saw limited duty at linebacker as a freshman before lining up last season in the secondary, where he tallied 36 tackles. Venables said the 6-2, 210-pound Texan has the versatility to switch back to linebacker this fall with effectiveness.
“He has quickness, athletic ability, additional speed and a tremendous amount of ‘want-to’ as well,” Venables said of Baker. “He is a very unselfish player.”

It seems like Pleasant has been at OU forever, but coaches have reason to believe his career is just beginning to unfold. While subbing for an injured Clint Ingram last September at UCLA, Pleasant made 10 tackles and had a momentum-changing interception nullified by a controversial holding call.

Though he played in six other games in 2005, the UCLA game was pretty much his season. OU’s defensive coordinator said while Pleasant remains somewhat of a question mark, he has the ability to line up and make his exclamation point on the field.

“He has great talent and great range for a kid of his size,” Venables said. “We’re going to put him in position to make plays. The biggest thing we’ll need from Demarrio is being consistent.”

Another player to watch is Chris Patterson, a 2005 junior college All-America linebacker at Northeastern Oklahoma and two-time OU signee. The 6-3, 220-pound transfer from Chicago has three years of eligibility left after redshirting in 2004.

Patterson made his one season at NEO count by racking up 105 tackles, deflecting seven passes, picking off three others and recovering a fumble. An academic casualty two years ago, Patterson’s 4.5 speed in the 40-meter dash and nose for the football make him an excellent prospect for playing time this fall.

“We’ve been anticipating his arrival for some time now and hopefully at the end of summer he can get things in order,” Venables said after his 2006-re-signing. “He’s athletic and he’s long and he’s fast and he has good coverage and blitzing ability.”

Those are the linebackers OU will count on most this year, positioned in front of a young secondary and behind a defensive line that could be the envy of the conference.
Collectively, the Sooner linebackers will be short on experience, but long on athleticism and potential.

The key, Alexander said, will be putting the pieces together into a unified machine as quickly as possible.

“You can never have enough overall knowledge of the defense,” he said. “Building the cohesiveness as a unit is critical to any team’s success and that (was) one of our main focuses in the spring — creating that chemistry that will carry over to the fall.”

After watching Alexander grow as a person and player over the past few years, Venables said he has become the right person to help fellow linebackers and others on defense make that transition and play to their abilities.

If Alexander can pull it off and help the Sooners regain their top-10 status, the likes of Bosworth and Calmus will have to make room for OU’s newest elite linebacker.

“The great leaders and natural leaders are those who do it as second nature,” Venables said. “They don’t have to think about it and they want the pressure — they want the responsibility to make the unit better, and I think Rufus is one of those leaders.”

(This story appears in the 2006 Football Preview Edition of Sooner Spectator magazine. Subscribe now by calling 1-800-888-6181)