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2023 Positional Preview – Linebackers

Part 6 of the 2023 Positional Preview heads to a linebacker room looking to make big improvements in the second year under Ted Roof and Brent Venables.

The Room

Incoming transfer Dasan McCullough expected to get a lot of work with vet Danny Stutsman. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

Projected Depth Chart

About the only absolute here is the fact that Danny Stutsman will be starting. Whether that’s at WILL or eventually MIKE, will be seen. But the rest will be fluid, especially early in the season as everyone else at LB besides Shane Whitter is either a transfer, a second year guy, or a true freshman. We would not be surprised to see Kip Lewis move up in some of these spots either.

MIKEJaren KanakKonnor NearKobie McKinzie
WILLDanny StutsmanDasan McCullough -OR-Kip LewisLewis Carter
SAMDasan McCulloughShane WhitterKip Lewis -OR-Sam Omosigho
CHEETAHJustin HarringtonDasan McCulloughKip Lewis -OR-Sam Omosigho

2022 Recap

We’ll keep this one short and sweet. As Kyle Dahlgren puts it, “We had a defensive end playing middle linebacker and literally no one to sub anyone with.” That’s pretty much it right there.

From the start, head coach Brent Venables and linebacker coach Ted Roof were playing with a short deck. Defensive recruiting woes put OU in a position with limited options not only to start, but to play at all. David Ugwoegbu was mistakenly moved to MIKE under Alex Grinch, but could not be moved back to his more natural position on the EDGE because, well, there was no one else to play MIKE. Danny Stutsman couldn’t, because there was no one else to play WILL. DaShaun White couldn’t play WILL because there was no one else to play Cheetah. And there definitely wasn’t anyone else ready to play behind them either. Shane Whitter had another year lost to injuries. Transfer Ted Roof, Jr. was lost before the season began. And incoming freshmen Kip Lewis, Kobie McKinzie, and Jaren Kanak were far from ready.

True Freshman Lewis Carter is pushing for early playing time. Photo by Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

New Names & the Rest of the Room

Before we get to the transfers, let’s start with two of the brightest stars from the entire Class of 2023. Two guys who have gotten praise from basically the moment they stepped foot on campus in Lewis Carter and Samuel “Sammy” Omosigho.

Carter, hailing from Tampa Catholic in Tampa, Florida, heads to Norman as the 13th ranked LB recruit from his class, a ranking the services may want to review after seeing Carter size up at OU weigh-ins at a true 6’0″. Carter played linebacker and running back during his football career for Catholic, rushing for over 800 yards and 14 touchdowns while amassing over 100 tackles his senior season alone. The do-it-all high schooler also ran track in the spring. Carter is expected to compete for playing time this season at WILL and could possibly be a contributor on special teams. Reports have him already over 215 pounds and looking fantastic.

Omosigho heads to Norman from east Texas where he starred at both football and basketball for Crandall. The 6’2″, 220 pound athlete finished 76th overall in the national composite rankings, good enough for 7th overall LB and 13th best in Texas. The rankings were justified in the stat sheet, accruing over 200 tackles to go along with 9 sacks and 6 interceptions his junior and senior seasons. Sammy added another 1600 offensive all-purpose yards for good measure, mostly from a slot TE position. Omosigho jumps off the screen in highlights and could potentially blossom into a 6’2″, 240 pound linebacker with football speed – almost a perfect prototype for Venables’ system. Omosigho, despite his lofty ceiling, is perhaps not quite as physically ready as the smaller but more stout Carter and is possibly looking at a redshirt season as he adds muscle.

In addition to adding two top 150 high school products, Brent Venables and Ted Roof went out and added Dasan McCullough and Konnor Near in the portal to throw into the mix.

McCullough, at 6’5″, offers a different dynamic to the group that the others do not have – incredible length. McCullough flashed his athletic potential spending time as a situational EDGE rusher as a freshman for Indiana last season, contributing 49 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks, adding 3 passes defensed. McCullough heads to Norman to play for Brent Venables, someone who has shown a knack for situational linebacker play throughout his coaching career. Right now, he is getting reps at Cheetah backing up Justin Harrington as well as inside at WILL behind Danny Stutsman, and projects to get some looks in certain sub-packages at situational SAM and/or EDGE positions. He hasn’t quite cracked the starting lineup, but be prepared to see 1 on the field early and often as his familiarity with the defense only grows.

Perhaps the most accomplished – yet least discussed – player on the entire Sooners roster, Konnor Near heads to Norman a two-time National Champion, amassing 93 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 titles over two seasons at Division II Ferris State. A two-time all-state player in Minnesota, the 6’1″, 235 pound Near brings stability to a room full of youth and inconsistencies. If you haven’t seen Barry Wise’s breakdown of Near yet, check it out on YouTube here. Near at the very least provides you with dependable depth, currently slotted in behind Stutsman at MIKE. A smart player willing to stick his head in the mix, Near won’t wow you with athleticism, but will be sure to hit the right fits in the run game and provide enough of a presence in the pass game. A perfect complimentary player to the flashier Stutsman and Jaren Kanak inside.

Two other new faces in town include incoming freshmen Taylor Heim, a late addition to the 2023 class from Bethany, and Phil Picciotti from Pennsylvania by way of IMG Academy. Heim played all over the field for Bethany, including quarterback and safety. The 6’5″ athlete has run a reported 4.50 40 while at OU, and his length, range, and speed would project very well at either WILL or Cheetah. As of right now, he is spending time with the safeties while he grows into his lanky frame. Picciotti couldn’t be any more opposite, arriving at a stout 6’3″, 230 pounds and projected to play MIKE. Not as fluid of an athlete as Heim, Picciotti needs to work on his athleticism as he adjusts to the college game. While both will likely redshirt, both have fits in this system and project to play eventually.

Kip Lewis is a few cheeseburgers away from cracking the starting lineup. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

2023 Projection

If there’s one word to describe the linebacker unit in 2023, that word is ‘depth’. ‘Experienced’ would only describe Danny Stutsman, who is just a 20 year old true junior that has appeared in 22 games, and Konnor Near, a two year starter at the Division II level. Next closest in games is Shane Whitter, who now in his fourth season has 17 appearances under his belt with 44 career tackles. The next closest? Dasan McCullough, who played snaps at an edge role in his lone season of play, might qualify. Or Justin Harrington, who enters his fifth season of eligibility with only 23 career tackles, all coming last season. Kip Lewis (2 career tackles) and Jaren Kanak (24 tackles) are the other candidates, both of which saw limited action in their first seasons of playing time in 2022.

How could such a room with this little experience be described as deep?

When you add three or four instant impact guys between the portal and high school, a room can change overnight. Near and Dasan McCullough provide instant experienced depth, and Oklahoma could be in much worse shape if either had to start a game(s). Lewis Carter appears ready to contribute from a physical standpoint, and as we have reported since his arrival this summer, Carter has really adapted to the new defense. The star incoming freshman is as talented a backer as this room has had in a while. Perhaps matching that potential is Sammy Omosigho, but the East Texas product might be a season away from contributing from a physical standpoint. With the loss of David Ugwoegbu and DaShaun White, the linebacker room is at least net +2 backers that could play. And without sounding too harsh, that group might net a bigger positive over the departed than that, just based on potential and physical abilities alone.

The other two freshmen in the room provide additional practice depth that was lacking in 2022 as well. Taylor Heim has been practicing with the safeties as well, but could provide some length on the scout team as he physically matures. And Phil Picciotti and his massive frame could see plenty of playing time this fall on special teams.

We are also another season removed from the Alex Grinch scheme, a scheme that completely lacked the proper fundamentals from the linebacker position that are required in Brent Venables’ system. The head coach has been adamant this offseason in numerous interviews that the linebacker play in 2022 was not up to the standard, and they focused this offseason on getting that room more prepared. As if the master teachers Venables and Ted Roof weren’t enough, OU went out and recruited former Clemson national champion James Skalski as a graduate assistant after spending last year on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad. Skalski brings experience playing in this scheme for Brent Venables, as well as a more aggressive mindset to a group that played with too much finesse in 2022. All of this to say, it should be expected to see this group play much more sound football, reading keys, run fitting, in coverage.

With so much youth and inexperience in the room, it will be interesting to see how the two-deep shakes out in the three games leading up to conference play. Danny Stutsman is going to start either way, at WILL or MIKE. Will the rest be a steady rotation? Will things fully click for Jaren Kanak? Will Dasan’s physical tools be too much of a weapon? With depth comes options. And with a calendar that has Arkansas State, SMU, and Tulsa on it to start the year, those options will have plenty of snaps to audition for set roles come Cincinnati.

Will this look like a championship linebacking corps this fall? Probably not yet. Give Jaren Kanak, Kip Lewis, Lewis Carter, and Sam Omosigho another year. Taylor Heim another two. The physical talents in this room far exceed any linebacker group in Norman over the last decade. Maybe longer. It just needs a little more time to mature.

Will the play on the field look much better compared to last season? At least that’s a definite yes.

Can new LB assistant James Skalski help elevate the play of the LB room? Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

Projected Stats

Last season, Danny Stutsman led the way with 125 tackles (10.5 TFL, 3.0 SACK) followed closely by interior mate David Ugwoegbu with 109 (7.5 TFL, 2.0 SACK). A Brent Venables linebacker hasn’t had over 100 tackles in a season since Isaiah Simmons (a hybrid) had 104 for the 2019 National Champions. Venables hasn’t had two linebackers go over 100 in the same season since 2016 (also a National Championship season) with Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph. And that’s about the only thing in common between 2016 and 2022.

The OU defense was on the field for an astounding number of plays in 2022. 1,070 to be exact. And Danny Stutsman played pretty much all of them, totaling 992 snaps. Ugwoegbu added 918 snaps of his own. For a somewhat direct comparison, Clemson’s 2022 defense, in their first season without Brent Venables, logged 966 plays. LB Barrett Carter had the most snaps at 835. The next highest at LB was 684 from Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. The two workhorses in Stutsman and Ugwoegbu never came off the field, because who else was going to go on?

This year, there should be a different narrative by the end of the season. One of a balanced room with more than just two main contributors. While Stutsman plays the most snaps, there is more than one option to sub in to give him a breather. McCullough can play WILL, Cheetah, or a hybrid-EDGE type in a wrinkle that we expect to see this fall. He is best when moving forward, and could be used to rush the passer often. And while McCullough is used closer to the line of scrimmage, Harrington will likely play more in the traditional Cheetah coverage role in space.

Konnor Near and Kip Lewis provide much needed depth without the expectation of much of a fallout in production when they are in. While Lewis Carter is expected to play, and could be a special teams contributor, there is no need to put any unnecessary pressure on the true freshman to perform like there may have been last season with someone like Jaren Kanak, and we saw how Venables and Roof handled that one.

Danny Stutsman9210.53.521
Jaren Kanak736.51.502
Justin Harrington632.51.511
Dasan McCullough559.55.510
Konnor Near463.51.001
Kip Lewis331.50.010
Lewis Carter161.00.000
Brent Venables knows his LB unit needs to improve in 2023. Photo by Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

Linebacker Room Grades

2022 Grade: D+
Offseason Grade: A-
2023 Projected Grade: B

Last season was a disaster for this defense. All three levels are to blame, and linebacker is just as culpable as the others. For a coaching staff with plenty of linebacker experience (and rings) between Brent Venables and Ted Roof, a D+ rating might be considered egregious. But all the teaching in the world could not fix the room they inherited. By mid-season, it became easy to fault the scheme or the coaching. But when looking back on the season on the whole, the talent in the room was incredibly lacking, and there was no experience to fall back on behind the starters. For as many tackles as Stutsman wracked up, he had almost as many miscues. And he had no help either; for how much they gave to the Crimson and Cream, the now-departed David Ugwoegbu and DeShaun White were, simply put, a terrible fit for this defense. Too many times, they couldn’t process what they were seeing quickly enough, or too soft when needing to shed blocks and make plays when they were in position to. They just did not belong out there, but there was nothing that could be done about it. Guys like Kanak and McKinzie just weren’t ready to be added to the mix, which only contributed to the overall narrative.

Venables went out and added two blue chip prospects, a two-time national champ, and a freak athlete to the room, completely transforming the direction overnight. However, there is sure to be some growing pains, especially early on in the season as new guys get acclimated. A grade of ‘B’ is surely headed in the right direction, and an A- grade wouldn’t be out of the question if Stutsman can become a true alpha and guys like Kanak and McCullough really hit their stride.

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