News about Balogun not OU déjàvu
BY DAVE SITTLER World Sports Columnist
Sunday, August 16, 2009
8/16/09 at 3:43 AM
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NORMAN — Friday's news that Oklahoma might lose middle linebacker Mike Balogun for the season, would have set off three-alarm fire bells had it been announced 10 months ago.
They were burned by the burnt orange in last season's Red River Shootout as Texas exploited the Sooners' lack of middle-linebacker depth, but the OU staff obviously learned from that coaching mistake.
When coach Bob Stoops confirmed the NCAA is checking Balogun's eligibility for the 2009 season, OU's coach calmly added that "there's a whole bunch of guys that could play in there."
That wasn't the case last October in Dallas. OU controlled the game against the boys in burnt orange until middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds was lost for the season when he blew out a knee.
Nobody stepped up when OU's defensive leader went down. The result was an ugly defensive meltdown on the floor of the Cotton Bowl, as Texas rallied from a 28-20 third-quarter deficit to a 45-35 win.
A touchy topic the rest of the season was OU's glaring mistake of not having a quality back-up prepared in the event the injury-prone Reynolds got hurt again.
But at OU's media day last week, Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables came about as close as they'll probably ever come to acknowledging that tactical error against the Longhorns.
Venables recalled how he had worked with Reynolds almost exclusively during fall camp and through the first five games because injuries slowed Reynolds' progress during the previous two seasons.
"He had missed a lot of the year before, and I was trying to get him game ready," Venables said. "That might have ended up making him more vulnerable. And then not to have anybody (ready) to sub with..."
Venables didn't finish that sentence. No need — everyone who watched the OU-Texas game witnessed the dramatic toll Reynolds' injury took on the Sooners.
Not only was OU leading by eight points when the hard-luck junior exited the game with 11:40 left in the third quarter, the defense had forced UT's offense into a three-and-out situation on its first offensive possession of the second half.
The Longhorns had gained 174 yards on 38 plays before the anterior cruciate ligament in Reynolds' right knee was shredded. With a disconsolate Reynolds on OU's bench, the Longhorns rolled up 264 yards on 32 plays and scored three touchdowns and a field goal on the next four possessions.
Reynolds wasn't the only one made "more vulnerable" by the extra work Venables gave him. With that gaping hole of inexperience in the middle, OU's defensive staff scrambled for weeks trying to find a quality replacement. The search even included moving undersized strong safety Nic Harris into the spot for one game.
"That player in the middle (linebacker) position means an awful lot to us," Stoops said in his press conference after the Texas loss.
The only positive to come out of the Reynolds situation was that other players were forced to learn the position on the run. Austin Box played well until he also injured a knee, giving Balogun an opportunity to start the BCS title game against Florida.
With everyone healthy, OU opened fall camp earlier this month with Reynolds, Box and Balogun all back. The position was strengthened even more with the rapid improvement of true freshmen Tom Wort and Jaydan Bird.
"The luxury we have this fall is experience," Venables said. "But we need to find a way to get Tom Wort on the field.
"Tom and Jaydan Bird both did terrific jobs in the spring in so many ways."
It's not a state secret that OU's defense must come out of the chute blazing. The offense has a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, but Sam Bradford could be scrambling more than scoring until a rebuilt offensive line becomes a cohesive group.
On paper, it appears a defense that returns nine starters has the experience to keep the Sooners in every game even if the offense sputters at times. But those nine starters were also responsible for OU ranking a mediocre 68th nationally in total defense, allowing opposing offenses to average 368 yards per game.
The Sooners, who also ranked 58th in scoring defense (24.5 points per game), surrendered a lot of those yards after Reynolds was hurt. Now a redshirt senior, Reynolds is healthy once again, even if he might be a step slower after so many surgeries.
"I'd much rather have an experienced player with some (physical) limitations who can make plays, as opposed to a hot-shot freshman out of high school," Venables said. "I'd put my eggs in the basket of the experienced player in a heartbeat."
The experience factor will take a serious hit if Balogun doesn't return. But at least OU has tested veterans and hot-shot newcomers to prevent panic alarms from going off by stopping offenses from scorching the middle if Reynolds is lost again.
Oklahoma's Mike Balogun (10) tackles (81) Aaron Hernandez of Florida at the BCS National Championship game at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. Jan. 8, 2009. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World