NORMAN — Consider the state of Oklahoma’s linebacker room roughly 22 months ago.
Brian Asamoah’s departure had left OU down one starter at the position. Remaining from the Sooners’ 2021 starting depth were DaShaun White and David Ugwoegbu, a pair of experienced and imperfect fits in Brent Venables’ system.
Behind them was a varied collection of promising yet unproven talents that included still-raw linebackers Danny Stutsman and Kip Lewis.
On Saturday, that duo started in the Sooners’ 59-20 rout of West Virginia, forming OU’s surest current linebacker tandem and two of the greatest developmental successes of the Venables era.
The budding partnership has been nearly 24 months in the making.
“Since he got here, (he’s) a guy that I’ve taken under my wing a little bit and kind of shown him what it’s like to play Will backer,” Stutsman said of Lewis late Saturday night. “He’s done a tremendous job. He’s got a lot of instincts, just like myself.”
Starting together for the first time, Stutsman and Lewis were the basis for another characteristically sturdy defensive performance for OU.
Stutsman returned from a one-game absence in the Mike linebacker spot and was in on 57 of a possible 72 snaps. Lewis, in the Will linebacker role Stutsman previously occupied, played 52 snaps in his second consecutive start. They combined for 15 stops in the Sooners’ sharpest tackling performance since their Week 5 win over Iowa State, per Pro Football Focus metrics.
That OU could do that with Stutsman and Lewis in November 2023 speaks to the journeys they’ve carved since early 2022.
Comfort in a new role
Stutsman was a favorite to start in Venables’ first OU defense in the top job after showing encouraging flashes in 141 snaps as a freshman.
Venables likes to tell the story of the “come-to-Jesus” conversation he had with Stutsman that February. The two of them were walking down a hallway in the team facility when Venables challenged the young, eccentric linebacker to mature into something more.
“I asked him, ‘Are you ever going to watch tape? Are you ever going to come ask for a playbook? Do you want to be a good player?’” Venables recalled last fall.
The conversation was the launching pad for Stutsman’s 2022 campaign when he led the Big 12 with 125 tackles and to his current place as one of the Sooners’ central leaders in his junior fall.
Venables initially downplayed the impact of Stutsman’s absence in a 27-24 loss at Oklahoma State. Late Saturday night, Venables conceded what OU was missing.
“There’s a real emotional lift that you get when he’s out there,” Venables said. “The toughness, and he loves to play, loves his teammates, loves to compete. I think he brings out the best in people when he’s out there.”
Lewis’ Year 2 jump
Lewis has gone on his own journey to secure a place as one of the Sooners’ steadiest tacklers.
Stutsman remembers a freshman mid-year enrollee who understood the Sooners’ scheme quickly. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof noticed a linebacker who could “really, really run,”.
Nothing made a stronger first impression than Lewis’ stature at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds.
“He was undersized,” Roof said.
Central to Lewis’ progression in Norman has been Jerry Schmit.
Both Stutsman and Roof note Lewis’ physical transformation under Sooners’ strength and conditioning coach. While Lewis is only listed eight pounds heavier today than when he got to OU, he’s undoubtedly become stronger and better equipped for major college football.
Lewis appeared in four games and took a redshirt last fall but offered glimpses of his promise in brief spurts. This season, only Stutsman and Jaren Kanak, who he replaced as starting linebacker, have more tackles than Lewis (52).
“He’s had so much improvement,” Stutsman said. “It’s night and day, man. He gets out there, he’s confident, plays fast. Obviously still a younger guy, still makes mistakes. But he’s so talented.”
Signs of development
With two regular-season contests remaining, OU has found its linebacker duo. That bodes well for the rest of the 2023 campaign. It could mean even more if Stutsman chooses to return for his fourth season in 2024.
Their growth is also a testament to Venables’ ability as a talent developer.
In a given OU practice session, you’ll typically see three people overseeing the Sooners’ linebackers.
There’s Roof, officially designated as OU’s linebackers coach. There’s graduate assistant James Skalski, a former standout under Venables at Clemson. And then there’s Venables, running players through drills like he’s still a GA on Bill Snyder’s staff at Kansas State.
“It’s trying to find ways to continue to bring guys along and put our best group of guys out there,” Venables said.