Oklahoma football: Five returning Sooners ready to ramp up their game

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17: Mark Andrews
NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17: Mark Andrews /
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AMES, IA – NOVEMBER 3: Wide receiver Dondre Daley
AMES, IA – NOVEMBER 3: Wide receiver Dondre Daley /

Sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly

No Sooner player showed more improvement over the second half of the season a year ago than first-year linebacker Caleb Kelly. Sooner coaches knew Kelly was a special talent — he was a five-star prospect and the highest-rated player in Oklahoma’s 2016 recruiting class — and they were delighted to see his hard work and determination to become the best player he can be lead to his steady improvement on the playing field.

Through the first five games last season, Kelly had just four tackles (all recorded in one game, the Sooners second game of the season against Louisiana-Monroe). He had a total of 32 tackles in OU’s final six games, including a season- and career-high 12 tackles in the Sooners’ impressive Sugar Bowl win over Auburn.

After the bowl game, head coach Bob Stoops said about his freshman linebacker: “That guy’s just beginning. He’s going to be a monster. I mean monster.”

Kelly likely will be the starter this season at the strong-side linebacker position, or what they call in football jargon the “Sam” position, in OU’s switchover to a 4-3 front-seven alignment.

The 6-foot, 3-inch, 232-pound sophomore linebacker reportedly is working on his speed to fly around better in space and improve his ability to drop back in pass coverage. He also is focusing on his technique and staying low to be more effective against running plays.

“Caleb’s improved tremendously from a year ago,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops told Tulsa World sports writer Cody Stavenhagen. “He’s a totally different player. He’s more explosive. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s 10-pounds heavier and a lot stronger and a lot quicker.”

Kelly’s performance in the middle of the OU defense is a big reason why the Sooners’ defensive play is more experienced and expected to be much stingier going into the 2017 season.