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December 28, 2013

LBs once forgotten, now key to Sugar Bowl for OU

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METAIRIE, La. -- Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander couldn't point to a moment when he knew Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley was going to be great, but he's known all along.

As early as his junior year at Booker T. (Tulsa, Okla.) Washington High School when he was still playing as much safety as linebacker, he found himself watching Mosley in the crimson and white of Alabama running around and making plays.

He loved watching Mosley fling himself into the pile. He loved watching a man as big and strong as he'd like to be outrun running backs to the sideline and smother them with bone-crushing tackles.


"When he hits somebody and doesn't go anywhere -- they're either going backward or staying right there," Alexander said.

In the cafeteria at the New Orleans Saints Practice Facility, Alexander gushed about just how good Mosley is and how he influenced the true freshman's style of play.

He's constantly learning from him through a television screen, and you can't blame him for that. Many of Mosley's accomplishments are goals Alexander has set for himself.

"I study him. Even being here, I study him," Alexander said. "He's a Butkus Award winner. I want to win that award some day, so I might as well look up to somebody who's doing it right now."


OU linebacker Frank Shannon was a Dallas (Texas) Skyline High School kid and a student of the game then, as Alexander was. But he wasn't watching Mosley, not then.

His eyes were watching Texas -- former Longhorn defender Sergio Kindle in particular. While Shannon was learning his trade in north Texas, Kindle was perfecting his in Austin.

Kindle was a three-time All-Big 12 performer at linebacker and defensive end and a first team All-America selection in 2009. He was as good as any second row player for a young defensive-minded man to watch. And Shannon did.

He kept a close eye on Kindle all through his years at Texas, and, as he grew older, he looked for more men to watch, more linebackers who could teach him anything about the game and how it should be played. He keeps coming back to watch Mosley.

"I look around at all the schools and all the linebackers and see how other linebackers play," Shannon said. "I watch him (Mosley) a lot. I feel like he's a really good linebacker. He's got good eyes and everything. He gets to the ball."

Shannon has also seen great linebackers play firsthand. In fact, this will be the second consecutive season Oklahoma has played against the reigning Butkus Award winner, which recognizes the nation's best linebacker.

Last year that was former Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te'o. That game supplanted Te'o as one of the best defensive players in college football in 2012 and firmly in the Heisman Memorial Trophy conversation.

Te'o recorded 11 tackles, including two for a loss, one sack and one interception that effectively won the Fighting Irish the game against OU 30-13 at Owen Field. Knowing all of that and having never seen Mosley play at field level, Shannon believes Mosley is the better linebacker.

"I feel that actually Mosley is better than Manti Te'o because I feel he's more physical, and he's a good leader out there on defense," Shannon said. "He doesn't just play for himself. I feel that sometimes Manti Te'o, like if he got in certain situations, he only thought about himself and dropped out of his spots or out of position sometimes.

"Watching C.J. Mosley out there on the field, you can tell he's a real defensive player. He reads his keys. He lets all the other people out there on the field know what they're doing. He does his job."


There's good reason for why Alexander and Mosley both share a craftsman's affinity for Mosley. Over the last four years, Mosley has shown time and again he's not only a great college linebacker but has the potential to be a great NFL linebacker.

Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 238 pounds, he has the size. With a reportedly 4.6-second 40-yard dash time, he has the speed. He's recorded more than 100 tackles in a season twice in the last two years and been a unanimous All-America pick.

Heading into Alabama's game against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, Mosley needs to record 15 tackles to have the record for most tackles by a Crimson Tide player. He's also wearing two national championship rings.

As a freshman linebacker, he played in all 13 of Alabama's games in 2010. He ended that season with 67 tackles -- good enough for third-most on the team that year.

Alexander's one game from the end of his first season of college football, and he's already recorded 75 tackles, having started the last seven games and played in all 12. He could be one of the next great Oklahoma linebackers, but that wasn't clear until the Sooners played Texas.


Alexander was a vaunted recruit when he arrived in Norman, Okla., last summer. But he wasn't playing a vaunted position, not during 2012 anyway.

The Sooner defense had been torched that year, mostly by air raid offenses with strong-armed and sure-minded quarterbacks.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops thought the best idea was to put more defensive backs on the field to try to combat those offenses. That meant the linebackers were left off the field for more downs than not.

The thinking then was Stoops didn't trust his linebackers, didn't trust senior Corey Nelson, former Sooner Tom Wort and Shannon among others to get it done as a unit. That hurt Nelson and Shannon, and they carried that hurt into 2013.

"Having everybody always telling us last year that the linebackers weren't nothing," he said, "it just made us want to work harder, and deep down inside we all knew we were better. We all knew how hard we could play, and we just needed to go out there and prove it this year."

Stoops gave them the opportunity to prove it. More than that, he rebuilt his defense around the athleticism and tenacity of his linebackers.

Now there are three of them on the field at all times. Now they all have major responsibilities. Now they all have an opportunity to shine.

It took three games to Shannon's thinking, but after Oklahoma soundly thumped Tulsa at home, he began to believe the defense was turning into something special. The linebackers were leading the way.

Then, in OU's fifth game of the season against Texas Christian and riding high after beating Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Nelson suffered a pectoral tear. The injury robbed Nelson of what was shaping into a brilliant senior season. It also made way for Alexander to show the depth and determination of the linebackers.

After finishing the TCU game in Nelson's stead, it became clear Alexander would have to start the game against Texas. He wasn't nervous then, even if he should have been.

Shannon remembered the poise Alexander showed all throughout pactice that week, the work he did to make sure he knew the game plan and could effectively communicate with defense.

"Dominique did amazing," Shannon said. "I always tell him 'When I leave, you're gonna be the man' because he came in, and he stepped up."

Alexander recorded 19 tackles against the Longhorns. That game began his trek to Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Those are awards no one expected him to win this season. But no one expects he and the defense to stop Tide running back T.J. Yeldon and the Alabama offense either.

And that's the task at hand.

Stop the offensive line and tailback intent on imposing their will against defenses. Hit the running back with over 1,100 yards rushing on fewer than 190 attempts.

Hit the 6-foot-2, 218-pound back who runs upright in between the tackles and dares you to roll him up. It's as simple as that single verb for Shannon -- hit.

"You just gotta hit him," he said. "Ain't nothing."

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