Aug. 31—Brent Venables has repeatedly called on his linebackers to be the "heart and soul" of Oklahoma's defense.
The OU head coach and former linebackers coach has been heavily involved with the linebacker group throughout spring practices and the preseason, urging his players to set the tone defensively.
That's the mindset for David Ugwoegbu heading into his senior year.
Earlier this week, The Katy, Texas native was named the starter at middle (mike) linebacker for the Sooners' season opener Saturday against UTEP. He was also named as one of five team captains for the opener, illustrating his impact on the defense during the offseason.
Ugwoegbu knows what Venables and the new coaching staff expects of him, and he's up for the challenge. More importantly, he feels he's been given a new lease on life in the new defensive scheme.
"I have to credit a lot of that to the staff that came in... From the first day I met them, I saw that intensity they were going to bring to the program," Ugwoegbu said Tuesday. "It just sparked something in me that these are people I'd love to follow. You hear [people] say, 'I'd run through a wall for this coach,' and that's how I feel about every single one of them."
Ugwoegbu is no stranger to the OU defense, though he'll have a bigger role this year. He's appeared in 37 games and made nine starts over his first three years, finishing sixth on the team last season in tackles with 49.
Joining him at weak side (will) linebacker is sophomore Danny Stutsman, who has been of the standout underclassmen over the last few months. Stutsman made big plays in a limited role last season, finishing with 21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two forced fumbles in 10 appearances.
Stutsman joins Ethan Downs and Billy Bowman as the only underclassmen in the starting defensive lineup, and he knows he has a lot of responsibility as a starting linebacker.
"Coach Venables puts a lot of stress on the linebackers," Stutsman said. "That's what he wants because he knows we'll respond. He wants to build the foundation. That's what the linebackers are to him, and I think we've responded really well. I'm excited to see how we keep responding."
DaShaun White fills out the linebacker room at the cheetah position, though that has a versatile role in the OU's new defense. The cheetah position, a blend of linebacker and safety, can help with stopping the run or drop back into coverage.
Justin Harrington, along with backup strong safety Trey Morrison and free safety Justin Broiles, could see opportunities at the cheetah position, but White will start there Saturday. Stutsman said White, also a team captain, and Ugwoegbu have been huge as mentors on the defense.
"[Ugwoegbu's] been the best leader, man," Stutsman said. "Him and DaShaun (White) are both captains. When they announced it, I was so happy because those guys took me under their wing. They showed me the ways. Us together, us out on the field, it's going to be a blast. I'm so excited."
Venables has said the linebacker room has lacked some depth compared to other positions, and the season-ending injury to T.D. Roof during the preseason hasn't helped. But he's liked the tenacity that group has shown in the last few weeks.
"[They're] tough guys that really care," Venables said. "They want to be good. High effort, accountable, they show up every day to work. I like the versatility of DaShaun. Danny's done a great job playing a couple of different positions, as well. David cares. He's invested a lot in this program, he's worked incredibly hard to grow to be a linebacker and I love his improvement.
"Them as a group, it's not real deep right now. But seeing those guys just grow and grow, getting better and better, more comfortable... they've got to be the heart and soul of the defense. So it's been a group that I've been really pleased with from a consistency standpoint. Shown up every day, and [they've showed] improvement from the start of camp to where we're at right now."
Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at email@example.com or at 405-366-3580