OU linebacker adapts to life without Travis Lewis and Brent Venables
BY GUERIN EMIG World Sports Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
8/29/12 at 3:28 AM
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NORMAN - Last winter Tom Wort found himself in sudden, terrible pain.
He had some bumps, bruises, strains and pulls coming off a season as Oklahoma's middle linebacker. But then he always had a high threshold for physical pain. That stuff, he could take.
This was personal.
Wort already was losing Travis Lewis, his friend and fellow linebacker for three years, to the NFL. Now Brent Venables was leaving, too, for Clemson.
"You're with him for three or four years like Tom was, and he teaches you so much about the game, teaches you so much about the defense, teaches you about life in general," observed second-year starting linebacker Corey Nelson. "And to have that taken away from you, it's hard to accept. It's like losing a close friend.
"It affected us all, but it hurt Tom the most."
"When you're that close for that long, and you go through the things we went through," Wort said, "you're always going to have that bond."
Wort, Nelson said, didn't stick around long after meetings, didn't engage in cheer-up conversation. This was going to be as big a battle as anything Wort fought with his 237-pound body, the one he always put through demolition derbies of football traffic.
"Tom is the middle linebacker you want," defensive end R.J. Washington said. "He's that trash-talking, hard-nosed dude who doesn't care about his body. He is going to run in and hit whoever he sees. That means a lot to your defense.
"You look at Tom and you know he's battling. It's always good to have some warriors on your team who are going to fight to the end. His presence is felt."
Right. But for Wort to mean that much again, he first had to clear his mind. This wasn't going to be much different from recovering from an injury. It was going to take time.
The Sooners realized as much and gave it to him, new linebackers coach Tim Kish among them.
"I told him I'm not Coach Venables. I'm my own personality," Kish said. "And I want him to be himself. But we adjusted. Tom's a football player. He was ready to take the bull by the horns and learn what we wanted to teach him."
That was another layer to Wort's transition - the new schemes and ideas of both Kish and new defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
"Some of the things 'Coach V' taught in his defense, it can be the complete opposite in this one," Wort said. "There are little parts you have to play within the scheme for the whole thing to work. Little differences that can make a complete difference...
"It definitely took a while. I had to slow myself down a little to try to read and fit into this system. But being more patient and seeing things definitely helped. Going through camp and having this month stretch of straight football has helped. Coach Kish has been working with me every day to get it down."
Wort pressed forward, making the necessary adjustments in order for his defense to function.
"Tom is one of the leaders of our defense," said captain David King. "He gets everybody lined up. He gives us the calls. He gets on people's cases when they mess up. He's a big part of what we're trying to do this year."
A bigger part, actually, with Lewis now a Detroit Lion.
"When me and Travis were there, we both took that role of trying to lead," Wort said. "Whereas this year I feel like I have more of a responsibility for the other guys, to help them out."
His most difficult adjustment was personal.
"Me and Travis, we were partners in crime out on the field," Wort said. "He was always right there. If either one of us had a problem, we always had each other's back. Traveling, we were always together. We studied together. We played in games together. I miss him."
The two talked or texted through each other's preseason camps this month. Wort and Venables occasionally did the same.
"I talked to Coach Venables the other night for about an hour," Wort said. "We talked football. He seems to be having fun out there. We talked about how my brother's doing, how his family is doing. We talked about everything."
Eventually, Wort got a little more used to his new order.
"To be honest with you, coming into fall camp. That's when I saw it. It took that long," Nelson said. "That's when I saw it doesn't affect him anymore. He's come around and put that behind him, as much as he can."
"Of course it's different," Wort said. "You have to start all over and re-prove yourself. Learning a new defense, learning new personalities of the coaches, them learning mine... But it's going really well now. We're working well together."
No. 4 Oklahoma at Texas-El Paso
9:30 p.m. Saturday
Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas
Radio: KMOD fm97.5, KTBZ am1430
Original Print Headline: Change of pace
Guerin Emig 918-581-8355
OU's Tom Wort (left) and Ronnell Lewis celebrate after a sack during a game against Kansas State last season. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World file