Oklahoma football: Are Sooners trading offense for better defense?

University of Oklahoma president Joseph Harroz Jr., left, and Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, right, pose for photos with OU's new football coach Brent Venables as they arrive at Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, Okla. on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.Brent Venables
University of Oklahoma president Joseph Harroz Jr., left, and Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, right, pose for photos with OU's new football coach Brent Venables as they arrive at Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, Okla. on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.Brent Venables /

In the throes of the 2021 season, the thought never occurred to Oklahoma football fans that Lincoln Riley would be on his way out, and it was even further removed that Brent Venables would be back in Norman in early December leading the Sooners.

As fast as Riley’s star in the college football world had been rising among head coaches and offensive masterminds, Venables has ascended to the top of the same world as a premier defensive architect, both in the recruiting of top defensive talent and the development of same.

All you have to do is look at Clemson’s extraordinary record of success in the time Venables was there and the impressive number of defensive players from Clemson who were drafted in early rounds by NFL teams.

While Oklahoma’s offensive numbers were at the top of the charts through most of Riley’s time in Norman, the defensive numbers being put up at Clemson under Venables’ direction were strikingly similar. While OU appeared in four College Playoffs while Riley was at OU, they failed to win a single playoff game.

The prime reason attributed to the Sooners lack of success against top teams in the playoff environment was a much-below average defense.

On the surface, it would appear that Oklahoma is trying to swing the pendulum in a different direction  with a much greater emphasis placed on the defensive side of the ball. While the OU defense did show incremental improvement from the time Alex Grinch came onboard under Riley, it never quite reached where it needed to be for the Sooners to be considered a complete team.

Ironically, this past season, when the OU defense was actually playing at its highest level since Grinch came on as defensive coordinator, the once high-powered Sooner offense started misfiring. As a direct result, six of Oklahoma’s 10 wins this season were by seven or fewer points.

No one knows more about the benefits of a strong defense in completing championship runs than Bob Stoops. Remember, when Stoops took the head-coaching reins at Oklahoma, the program was in much more dire straights than it is today, and two years into that transition, the Sooners won a national championship. And they did it with a defense that throttled the country’s most explosive offensive team at that time, Florida State.

Brent Venables was on the OU coaching staff for that game and won a championship ring as a result of it.

It’s true that Venables’ entire career has been devoted to defensive football –and, oh by the way, he has risen to become one of the best at in college football, bar none — but he is also mindful of the vital importance of a strong, attacking offense.

In 29 seasons of college coaching, Venables has experienced just one season with a losing record. That doesn’t happen through defense alone. The new Oklahoma head coach is reportedly close to bringing along with him to OU Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.

In addition to being an outstanding young offensive mind, Lebby is also a graduate of OU. ITje resume he would bring to Norman is similar to the achievements and national recognition that Lincoln Riley had when he came to Oklahoma as offensive coordinator, and Lebby has done it in a much stronger conference (the SEC) than where Riley had been prior to OU.

Over the last three seasons at Ole Miss, Lebby’s offensive units have averaged an SEC-record 562 yards per game, 555 yards per game and this season 563 yards per game, fourth best in the nation.

In his official welcoming ceremony to OU, Venables said, “We will employ and exciting, fast, explosive and diverse offense, combined with a physical, punishing, relentless, suffocating defense.” As you would expect, that drew an immediate rousing response from the assembled gathering on Monday at the Everest Indoor Training Center on the OU campus.

You could say that Venables truly grew up and came into his own in the decade he was in the Palmetto State (South Carolina) at Clemson, but he cut his teeth under Bob Stoops in Oklahoma with the Sooners.

Venables, who is from Salina, Kansas, originally, attended Kansas State and played linebacker in the early 1990s under Bill Snyder and while Bob and Mike Stoops were on the Wildcats’ coaching staff.

Bob was always impressed with the intensity and energy with which Venables played and his enthusiasm for the game and his will to get better. After his playing days were over, Bob encouraged Venables to become a graduate assistant, and Snyder later brought him aboard as a full-time assistant to coach the linebackers.

Bob Stoops was officially gone from K-State, having taken over as the defensive coordinator at Florida, when Venables was elevated to his first full-time assistant coaching role, but Venables was one of the first assistants he hired when Stoops became the new head coach at Oklahoma.

The rest is history….and that history is still being written.

We’ll never know exactly what the conversation was when OU president Joseph Harroz and athletic director Joe Castiglione met in person with Venables in South Carolina on Sunday, but it’s a pretty good bet that one of the things they said to the man they wanted to take the job as the next Oklahoma head coach was, “You’re an Oklahoma guy.” And indeed he is.

And so it is, that Brent Venables returns to Sooner football and the Palace on the Prairie to begin his first full day as the 23rd head coach of Oklahoma football.