NORMAN, Okla. — Spring is the time to make a position switch. A dozen practices and three scrimmages are sufficient time to see if an experiment can turn into a positive revelation.
However, Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly’s spring was different. He’s making the move to inside linebacker in 2018. That much was decided when the 2017 season ended. But Kelly’s offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum meant he had to study his new position instead of playing it.
Kelly conceded he’s watched more football in the last month than at any time in his life. The game looks a little different now due to the circumstances.
“This is my first major surgery. Having to do this has been different,” he said. “It’s different, but it has given me a new outlook.”
The Sooners, who wrapped up spring practice on Tuesday, aren’t worried about Kelly’s transition. They toyed with the idea last year. He even played the role in passing situations. The former 5-star recruit learned the defense for that package.
Throughout the spring, he participated in workouts. During practices he stood with inside linebackers coach Tim Kish during scrimmages and drills, shadowing the position.
If Kelly were two years younger, this would be a riskier move. The evidence that a position switch has succeeded comes on the practice field. The coaching staff isn’t concerned and neither is Kelly.
“It’s cool that they’ve shown this kind of trust in me,” Kelly said.
Moving Caleb Kelly could solidify Oklahoma’s front 7
As talented as Caleb Kelly is, he was previously playing a position that often is eliminated against Big 12 offenses.
The strongside outside linebacker spot requires a defensive back’s skills if an offense employs a slot receiver. This spring, Oklahoma began training freshman sensation Brendan Radley-Hiles at the spot. To show the difference, the 183-pound Radley-Hiles was a cornerback in high school.
The Sooners want Kelly in a spot that doesn’t change because of offensive personnel. The inside linebackers remain the same whether they are going up against five-receiver sets or a goal-line package.
The goal is to get Oklahoma’s best 11 defenders on the field as much as possible. Kelly, who had 92 tackles and 1 interception in the previous two seasons, is part of that group.
But he’s at the point in his career where the experience gleaned from playing in 25 games during his freshman and sophomore seasons should take over.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops admits a move now could blunt Kelly’s growth.
“I think he understands our defense,” Stoops said, “but the ability to react and seeing plays and treating your body and the muscle memory it takes to flow to plays and see them the right away where they become instinctual and not robotic. I think those are the progressions that have to take place.”
It’s now or never for Caleb Kelly
The 2018 season is critical for Kelly. Given his high-profile when Oklahoma signed him out of Fresno, Calif. in 2016, Kelly’s career hasn’t exceeded the high expectations. One of the reasons is where he’s fit in the defense. Outside linebackers who aren’t dominant pass rushers struggle to stay on the field in the Big 12 Conference and the NFL.
Becoming an inside linebacker is a critical move as his NFL potential comes into focus. If he can play inside linebacker, his stock will rise. In the short-term, the Sooners’ defense will improve, as well.
Kelly embraced the move for several reasons. The spring opened his eyes to his present and future. Spending the spring studying his new position gave him a different point of view. He got a better understanding of what the coaches see and what he needs to see and why these point of views are essential.
“I’ve been able to step back and really appreciate football as a whole and how much I love the game,” he said. “To come over here every day while being hurt and not miss a meeting or workout or anything like that and still be focused and completely indulged in what is going on, I really know I love this game and this what I want to do.”