Curtis Bolton’s apt description of his senior season rolled off his tongue in the straightforward way he expresses many of his thoughts.
“Destiny … It’s been a movie,” Bolton says.
Few outside observers expected the Oklahoma linebacker to get here, becoming a regular starter for the sixth-ranked Sooners. He’d never done it before during three previous seasons, and his playing time only figured to marginally increase.
But that scenario wouldn’t have been dramatic enough for a feature film, and Bolton’s correct: His past few months have been filled with scenes fit for a silver screen.
His increased playing time, the attention he received during a time of stark transition for OU’s defense amid a coordinator change, and his ability to speak about what’s changed for that unit since then have made him one of the Sooners’ most fascinating characters.
Saturday, Bolton will be one of 18 players appearing in their final home game at Owen Field when OU faces Kansas. His legacy may not reach the peaks of Sooner football lore, but it’s one worth remembering.
Mental and physical strides helped him seize the inside linebacker job in preseason over Caleb Kelly, a former five-star prospect who most assumed would maintain a spot in the starting lineup.
Bolton made several big plays early on, challenged for OU’s single-game tackling record with 23 stops against Army and remains the team’s second leading tackler. But when the defense bottomed out in a 48-45 loss to Texas, culminating in former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ dismissal, Bolton found himself at the center of unwanted attention. False reports that he and Stoops had an altercation during halftime of that game only fueled the aftermath.
Bolton explained the real story with media 10 days after the purported incident. In a 13-minute session, he was insightful, honest and provided a read on where the defense had been and where it could go.
He has been consistently candid, specifically over the past two weeks as poor outings have placed the defense under a heat lamp once again.
Bolton is skilled at and willing to explain the shortcomings. Whether it’s a technical evaluation — “we can't get lulled to sleep on the back end and the linebackers, we've gotta give better underneath coverage,” he said after the Texas Tech game — or discussing how poor performances make him feel — “just makes me sick to my stomach,” he said Tuesday — Bolton calls it as he sees it.
He is both the defense’s most honest critic and its biggest advocate. OU (9-1, 6-1 Big 12) remains in the Big 12 championship hunt, as well as the race for a College Football Playoff berth should outside factors go its way. The Sooners’ ability to get stops will factor into achieving both.
“You just see a guy [in Bolton] who went through adversity and really stuck it out, and really continued to fight and continued to just work; you see the success he’s having now,” OU linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “You see that from guys and you can't question why the defense continues to fight.”
Bolton’s ability to be forthright has a locker room effect.
“You have to have guys that truly understand the entire situation, understand what you’re doing well, and also have a realization for the things that you can do better,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “You can’t hide behind some of the mistakes that we’ve made, but the flip side of that, there’s the makings of a championship-caliber defense in that room, and you see bits and pieces on the field.
“We’ve got to continue to improve and push through, and you need leaders like Curtis that help our guys understand and have that realization that, here’s the things we’ve got to do better, and also, the sky’s not falling. There’s a lot of things we’re doing well. We’ve got to keep building on them and be ready to play our best ball at the end. That’s what we’re all pushing towards.”
Regardless of how OU’s season plays out, Bolton’s last go-round in Norman has armed him with stories for years to come. His increased playing time was met with arguably more challenges than he faced as a reserve. And he’s OK with that.
He wouldn’t trade the extra work he put in to earn this role — not an official team captain, but certainly a valued starter as well as OU’s unofficial defensive spokesman.
“The Lord blessed me,” Bolton said. “I’m just thankful I can be here."
Kansas at No. 6 Oklahoma
Time: 6:30 p.m., Saturday
Place: Owen Field
Records: OU (9-1, 6-1 Big 12); KU (3-7, 1-6)
Line: OU (-35.5)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7