New Norms In Norman

At the conclusion of the 2016 college football season, there was a changing of the guard in Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners, who had been coached by Bob Stoops since 1999, were set to begin their next journey under Lincoln Riley. He was an internal promotion who was loved by all the players for his offensive prowess and expertise in play calling. The program was definitely in good hands.

Riley’s coaching abilities alone weren’t all the hype, but in fact, the standard of long tenured head coaches in Norman looked to be remaining intact. Since the 20th century began, the Sooners have been blessed with not just one, but four coaches who managed to put at least 15 years into the program. Stoops, Barry Switzer, Bud Wilkinson and Bennie Owen were the lucky four who accounted for all seven of the Sooners’ National Championships.

Riley was supposed to not only be the next great head coach for the crimson and cream, but possibly the best ever for Oklahoma. His age at the time of his coaching debut (33) set the stage for a lengthy career for him. As quickly as the hype train got started though, it derailed even faster as Riley made a stunning decision to leave Norman for the opportunity to coach USC.

Riley’s departure frustrated many as he was set to be “The Chosen One,” but much like Anakin Skywalker, Riley became seen as the evil Darth Vader overnight. In an attempt to stop the bleeding, the Sooners hired one of the most gifted defensive minds in college football, Brent Venables. This way the Sooners filled their vacancy with someone who knows the program while also paving a way to fix their abysmal defense.

The Reasoning

Oklahoma has been viewed as an offensive juggernaut for decades, but there’s no doubt Venables was brought on for two obvious reasons. One is to get Oklahoma ready for the SEC and the other is to get them over the hump in the CFP.

The painful truth is that Oklahoma can no longer be a one-sided football team if they want to reach their goals. It takes solid teams to compete in the SEC, but a well-rounded one in all facets of the game to actually win it. Now for a championship, that takes mostly the same blueprint as the SEC has won five of the eight CFP trophies. Speaking of CFP, Oklahoma’s dreams have been crushed in the new format, going winless and getting blown out in three out of four appearances while allowing 49.75 points per game.

Venables now has the challenge to implant his defensive acumen while monitoring and helping his offensive coaches to create a profound product on both sides of the ball. The issue is that there’s really only one season for the staff to get this accomplished, as this is the last year Oklahoma will be playing in the Big 12.

Venables is capable of doing it though, just as he did with Clemson, walking into a job where the last game the Tigers got boat raced 70-33 by West Virginia. In no time he got that defense turned around with the occasional outlier game, but enough to bring two titles to Clemson.

The “been there done that” mindset should get the players to buy in to his leadership immediately. Through experience in capturing a national championship to also having previously coached as a defensive coordinator in Norman from 1999-2011, I think he has the right stuff for this team. I foresee some growing pains for Oklahoma but I fully believe with one “warm-up” final Big 12 season, they will be a formidable force in the SEC. Here’s why:

Venables Creates Great Linebackers

If you can’t run the football in the SEC you don’t win football games, it’s as simple as that. Having a good defensive line helps stop those running teams, but having that elite linebacker core seems invaluable. Just look at Georgia as they did exactly that last season, running the ball and having the best linebacker crew, which paved the way for a title.

When it comes to Venables, he has a knack for building linebackers and propelling them to play at a much higher level. Players like Ben Boulware, B.J. Goodson, James Skalski and Baylon Spector all had profound careers for the Tigers and won titles, but barely made it to the NFL. Goodson is subtly having a decent career, but the point is he can get championship caliber play out of less than appealing linebackers.

Being a coordinator is more than just coaching though as it is evaluating, having perception of talent and improvising when need be. Venables’ decision to move Isaiah Simmons from safety to linebacker paid dividends for the team and Simmons himself as it turned him into a high first round draft pick. 

Staying Ahead Of Schedule

If there’s one thing people have noticed about a Venables led defense, it’s that his defenses are always a play ahead. Football can be seen as more than just X’ s and O’s to some, almost like a chess match. Thinking two or three moves ahead in chess is imperative, just like it is to be a play ahead in football.

On the fly adjustments and audibles all come from noticing things in the film room, and few are as good as Venables. He is able to notice a look or position group and make the correct adjustment based on game film. This high alert nature nearly always had his squad in the right spot.

Heavy impact on “nearly” though, as in the 2020 Sugar Bowl Ohio State head coach Ryan Day exposed one flaw in Venables’ system. Day’s Buckeyes ran up to the line and snapped it quickly, not giving his defense time to adjust based on what the offensive set looks like. Some teams tried to perfect that same design but not every team has the elite weapons like the Buckeye had, much to the fortune of Venables. He’s a fool me once type of guy and it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever be caught off guard like that ever again.

Stay Hungry

Last season Clemson’s offense was a train wreck and Venables’ defense had to keep the team afloat. I mean week one they kept Georgia, the eventual national champions, out of the end zone but lost 10-3 due to a Christopher Smith pick six. A few times due to constantly being on the field and suffering injuries to key players like Bryan Bresee, the Tigers’ defense sputtered.

The few times they were unable to save the day cost the Tigers a chance for a seventh straight ACC title. This failure will only create a more dedicated Venables, who now can instill that fierce drive to outsmart the opponent into his staff and players. The players can only be as good as they want to be, and there’s one key piece that may be forgotten in the midst of this offseason.

The players who are still on this roster are wholeheartedly dedicated to the success of this program. Some players jumped ship with Riley, such as quarterback Caleb Williams, and even some recruits decommitted. However, those now on board are hungry to prove the doubters wrong. Even newly acquired quarterback Dillon Gabriel is out to show what he’s capable of, and was described by Venables as “a winner” at the Big 12 media days.

Finally, Win In The Trenches

If there’s one thing Venables’ teams have the inherent capability to do, it’s win in the interior. Just behind the extravagant quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence that led their respective Clemson teams to a title, was a fierce and highly productive defensive line. Players like Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and even Austin Bryant all had their names on that list of defensive lineman that helped clinch a title.

In terms of replicating that great talent in Norman, you could say that there’s currently a tornado watch. All the materials for the tornado (a great d-line) are there but it hasn’t manifested itself yet. On the recruiting trail it’s been some good fortune as Venables has landed two, top 10 defensive ends per ESPN recruit rankings. They have 2023 class commits from #2 DE Derrick LeBlanc and the #8 DE Adepoju Adebawore.

As stated above about linebackers, it only takes Venables a little bit to be able to turn these guys into elite prospects. However, a stable product that looked nothing like the past Sooner defenses will have to be a constant in order to recruit steadily on the defensive side of the ball. For short term gains to put the squad back on track, the transfer portal seems to be the best option.

Starting the day Venables was announced as head coach on December 5th of last year, the Sooners struck gold in the portal. By January 10th, seven players on the defensive side had made it official that they were transferring to Oklahoma. Also in that grouping was the southpaw Gabriel, who obviously was an imperative acquisition that can help the offense stretch the field with his deep ball.

The headliner for the defense which will provide immediate help is defensive tackle, Jeffrey Johnson. Ironically, he comes from Tulane, who almost stunned Oklahoma at home in week one last year. Crazy how college football’s free agency, I mean transfer portal, creates situations where fans go from disliking to loving a player in no time. If all goes according to plan, the Sooners hope to get that Perrion Winfrey impact, just as he was a transfer in that became one of the best defensive tackles in all of football.

2022 Outlook

The Sooners get two tune up games before they head to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln to take on Nebraska in their first real test of the year. The Cornhuskers will have to figure out life after Adrian Martinez quickly and if all goes well former Texas Longhorn, Casey Thompson, will have them sitting at 3-0. They get the awesome privilege to play week zero against Northwestern in Ireland, then get two tune ups themselves in North Dakota and Georgia Southern.

Speaking of Martinez, the following week opens up conference play as they take on the Martinez-led Kansas State Wildcats. Other notable schedule notes are that the Sooners have a trap game heading to Ames to take on Iowa State following a bye. That’s a recipe for disaster. Also, Bedlam runs through Norman this year but what’s weird is that it’s not during rivalry week. The Sooners have Texas Tech reserved for the last game of the season this year, which is quite odd.

Looking at this schedule, there’s a legitimate chance that the Sooners could go undefeated in the regular season, but I think 10-2 is a reasonable guess at this point in time. Baylor is my pick to win the conference and fortunately for the Sooners they get that game at home. I just think that Dave Aranda’s defense is legit and they will build off a fabulous 2021. I’m also eyeing that previously mentioned trap game just because Ames is a dangerous place to play. The Cyclones will also be coming off a bye in which I’m sure they’ll put special plays in to try and topple the Sooners.

All in all, Venables is a great hire and should really help prepare the Sooners for life in the SEC coming in 2023. A great mind who made it known how he feels about commitment this past week. He wants full buy in from the moment these guys are high schoolers and will always get the best out of his players.

I firmly believe that we’ll see a ready to win football team sooner, rather than later.

Derek Worley

Sports Analyst

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