Today: The fifth in our series looking at the strongest and weakest position for each team in the Big 12: The Oklahoma Sooners.
Strongest position: Linebacker
Key returnees: Travis Lewis, Tom Wort, Austin Box, Corey Nelson, Jaydan Bird
Key losses: None
Analysis: Lewis is the headliner, but make no mistake: This group is pretty stout. It's by far the best group of linebackers in the Big 12. Lewis has topped 100 tackles in each of his three seasons on the outside, and should do it once again in 2011.
Behind him is a highly recruited player that wasn't able to really contribute as a freshman, but is pressing hard for playing time this spring. Last year, Lewis said Nelson would eventually be even better than he was.
"Corey Nelson lit it up in the scrimmage the other day,” coach Bob Stoops told reporters this week. "He broke the record for the way the we tally up points. He had three or four sacks, pressures, I don't know how many tackles. He had a huge day.
"He looks like the best player out there on defense right now. In fact it's not even close."
Stoops doesn't say that about just anyone. Austin Box will start at middle linebacker, and though various health issues have sidelined him plenty over his career, sophomore Tom Wort looked more than capable of filling in last year. His mistakes (i.e. late hits) should be cut down significantly with more experience this year.
Jaydan Bird had 11 tackles last season and should also contribute. Oklahoma plays a hybrid nickel back as its third linebacker, where Tony Jefferson played last year ahead of upperclassman Joe Ibiloye and won Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the Year. He's worked some at a traditional safety this spot, but he's clearly a rising star.
For anyone looking to poke holes in a team likely to open the season at No. 1, linebacker won't be the place to do it.
Weakest position: Secondary
Key returnees: Sam Proctor, Demontre Hurst, Javon Harris
Key losses: Quinton Carter, Jonathan Nelson
Analysis: More than anything, this is a question mark, rather than a true weakness. Oklahoma has a lot of guys with potential, but you can't ignore the absence of All-Big 12 cornerback Jamell Fleming, who is not enrolled at Oklahoma. He may be back this fall, but no definitive update on his status will likely be available until late this summer.
In his place, the unproven but talented Gabe Lynn is slated as a starter across from Demontre Hurst, who was solid as a first-year starter in 2010.
The Sooners, though, lose both starting safeties in All-American Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson. Former starter Sam Proctor returns, but undersized former backup corner Aaron Colvin is currently the starter at strong safety across from Javon Harris, who filled in for an injured Nelson against Oklahoma State last year and played well, impressing in spot duty as well.
This unit could be solid next season, but it's definitely a question mark. In a passers' league like the Big 12, that could be a very costly question mark.
More spring superlatives: