NORMAN, Okla. — The reasons for frustration circled Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly early last season. He did everything he could to keep it hidden.
A preseason knee sprain knocked the 5-star recruit from Fresno, Calif., down the Sooners’ depth chart. For the first time in his life, football wasn’t easy. Kelly was finishing second in those man-to-man competitions he’d always dominated.
The Sooners opened the season against Houston and Kelly never got on the field. Two weeks later against Ohio State, he was a nonfactor.
By that point, he was questioning whether Oklahoma was the place for him. His mother, Valerie, was 1,400 miles away. Kelly felt alone, and the pressure defensive coordinator Mike Stoops continuously applied to improve felt like a wall closing in.
“My mom could tell in how I stopped calling her,” Kelly recalled. “I stopped texting back or it was real short, and she knew something was up with me, and then she came and talked to me, and I think she talked to Coach Mike, too. He called me, and was like, ‘I need you to just keep pushing. I’m not yelling at you for you to get worse. I’m yelling at you for you to get better.’ I feel like once I understood that, things got better.”
Kelly became a staple of the Sooners’ 2016 defense by November, capping the season with a team-high 12 tackles in Oklahoma’s 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
A different player emerges
Senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo threw a tidbit in July when visiting with reporters at Big 12 Media Days in Frisco, Texas.
“We’re a bigger, stronger, faster team,” he said. “Wait until you see Caleb. He’s really gonna put it together this year.”
There typically is a physical transformation between the freshman to sophomore seasons. A full year under a strength and conditioning staffs’ watch and on a diet carefully constructed by a nutritionist changes a person.
— John Shinn (@john_shinn) August 13, 2017
The “skinny” freshman has bulked up to 230 pounds. The size caught up to the raw talent. Since March, Stoops, who is also Kelly’s position, has tried to mold him into an every-down player.
“I told him I want to see him on an All-American list this year. That’s what I want to see from him,” Okoronkwo said. “I know he can.”
That’s what you expect from 5-star recruits. That status is bestowed on those who do many things well.
The projection for Kelly was a linebacker who could defend the run but cover a speedy slot receiver. And at times, rush the quarterback and get there.
A rare commodity
The Big 12’s defensive reputation shows most in linebacker recruiting. According to the 247Sports composite rankings for 2017 recruits, there were 35 4-star or higher linebackers. Oklahoma’s Levi Draper was the only one to sign with a Big 12 school.
In 2016, Kelly was one of just three to join the conference and the only 5-star recruit. Texas landed the other two.
Linebackers want to grow into the size desired by NFL personnel evaluators. That’s hard to do when you spend three or four years chasing speedy slot receivers throughout October and November.
Kelly is different. His performance against Auburn showed what he could do against smashmouth offenses. He was difference-maker in that capacity.
“Caleb just has more diversity to his game now, yes. He can play a lot of different positions,” the coach said. “When we’re in our big package and we’ve got our big players on the field, he plays one position. Then we go to our nickel package and he goes to another position. He’s just expanding his game.”
Eyeing Ohio State
Ask Kelly and he’ll tell you his lowest point occurred in mid-September when the Sooners faced Ohio State. By his account, he was on the field for three plays that night. The Buckeyes rolled up and down the field, rushing for 291 yards in the 45-24 romp over Oklahoma.
Assuming Kelly is healthy on Sept. 9, he’ll be on the field anytime Ohio State snaps the ball for the rematch at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
In order to seriously contend for national championships, great players are required — on both sides of the ball. From the moment Kelly signed with the Sooners in 2016, he was projected as a player that tips the scale. Kelly started to live up to the projection late in his freshman season. The expectations grew since.
“I’ve always tried to be the hammer, not the nail,” Kelly said. “I feel like it’s easier to do that this year.”