For two seasons, Oklahoma middle linebacker Tom Wort could always look to his side for help.
The on-the-field relationship he had with former weakside linebacker Travis Lewis was, in many ways, student-to-mentor. Whenever Wort had a question, Lewis was always there to answer.
That’s no longer the case. Lewis is trying to make the Detroit Lions’ roster. Wort is entering his junior season, and he’s looking to lead instead of follow.
“It’s completely fine. It’s something I enjoy doing. I’ve done it since high school, every level up,” Wort said. “Even when I was a freshman here, I was prepared to do it. It’s not going to be a big deal.”
It shouldn’t. There’s going to be more on Wort’s plate this season. He is the experience in the middle of the Sooners’ defense. Those 21 starts he’s made over the past two seasons are essential to the unit’s development. Wort must be a pillar of reliability this season, and he knows it.
Linebackers coach Tim Kish has seen those qualities throughout training camp. He’s always been there with advice for new weakside linebacker Corey Nelson or backups Aaron Franklin or Frank Shannon.
“It’s been good from that perspective. I think it’s been a good teacher-pupil relationship out there on the field,” Kish said. “They really do become the coach on the field once the ball is snapped. I think it’s been healthy that way.”
As long as Wort can stay on the field, it will remain that way. There’s a reason Wort has only started 21 games over the last two seasons instead of 27. He’s had a propensity for nagging injuries throughout his career.
Kish created a stir several weeks ago when he told reporters he was being cautious with Wort because of ankle, shoulder and back injuries. Those were all injuries Wort played through last season, and it cost him a step or two in many games.
“I’ve never gone into a game thinking about it. It is luck,” Wort said. “My injuries last year were somewhat unlucky. When I had Travis and Stacy (McGee) roll my ankle up, I mean, that was after the whistle. Those kinds of plays, they’re a fluke and a bad accident. It takes luck to not have injuries. But it’s not something I’m thinking about.”
One of Wort’s gifts is the ability to play without distraction. Watch him Saturday when the fourth-ranked Sooners open the season at UTEP. Wort’s a 6-foot, 230-pound ball of energy who’s constantly in search of someone to collide with.
Kish noticed that about him when he started watching film last spring. One goal for this season is to rein a little of it in.
“You see him flying sideline to sideline. That’s what he’s good at. He’s got good angles chasing the ball to the perimeter,” Kish said. “It’s not that the defense has changed so much that he’s not going to be doing similar things. I think that’s what excites him about playing the game of football. That’s where a linebacker should be ‚Äî around the ball all the time. That’s what’s exciting to him about playing the position.”
The Sooners need him to be able to play it 12 times over the next 14 weeks. The linebackers and the defense need that pillar to build around.
“I need to be healthy,” Wort said. “I need to have a season where I’m healthy the entire time.”
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