Oklahoma football will be different but as dynamic as ever moving forward

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 30: A general view of Oklahoma Sooners fans in the background of a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma won 52-21. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 30: A general view of Oklahoma Sooners fans in the background of a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma won 52-21. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

Oklahoma football has undergone more changes in the past two months, both in terms of player personnel as well as in the coaching and support staff, than the program has seen in as long as I can remember.

And that, by the way, goes back over half a century.

The biggest change, of course, was the hiring of a new head coach, which was necessitated by the sudden and surprising departure of Lincoln Riley for the same position at USC. The Sooners went with one of their own in Brent Venables as Riley’s replacement.

Venables had spent the previous 10 seasons as defensive coordinator at Clemson, where he produced some of the very best college defensive units and top NFL Draft picks in the time he was there. For 13 years before that, however, he was an assistant and defensive coordinator at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops.

The way Venables tells it, he may have physically left Oklahoma after the 2011 season, but his love and passion for Oklahoma football never left him. That’s why when OU athletic director Joe Castiglione came calling in early December and offered Venables the opportunity to return as the next head coach at Oklahoma, it was an easy decision.

"“It’s meant to be. We comin’ Sooner Nation. Boomer!” Venables was quoted as saying on the flight to Oklahoma after being named the new head coach.“I love what I do. I’m so passionate about it,” he said. “I have a deep love and passion for my job. It doesn’t seem like work when you love what you do.“To have the opportunity for the first time to lead a program like Oklahoma, it doesn’t get any better than this.”"

You can expect changes every year between the end of one season and in the months leading up to the beginning of another one, but that transition is magnified when the changeover to a new head coach is involved.

The head-coaching change wasn’t the only issue the Oklahoma program was facing just days after the Sooners had played their last regular-season game of the 2021 season and were eliminated from the Big 12 championship consideration for the first time in seven years.

In the short weeks that followed Riley’s sudden exit, 10 Sooner players declared for the NFL Draft and nine more elected to enter the transfer portal, including OU’s two prized Heisman-watch quarterbacks. The list of departures also included four assistant coaches who Riley took with him to USC.

Venables follows in a long line of first-year Oklahoma head coaches hired from the assistant ranks. With the exception of the ill-fated hire of Howard Schnellenberger in 1995, you have to go all the way back to 1946 and Jum Tatum for the last time OU hired someone who had previous head coach experience.

Venables knows all about winning at the highest level

Venables may be the most accomplished assistant coach, however, the Sooners have brought in to take over the football program. Yes, and I am including the legendary trio of Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops in that assessment and even the most recent wonder boy, Riley.

Unlike his predecessors, Venables has been part of three national championship teams (one with Oklahoma in 2000 and two while at Clemson, in 2016 and 2018). While at Clemson, Venables led one of college football best defensive teams. Over 10 seasons as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Venables’ defenses ranked No. 1 in the nation in sacks and opponent third-down conversion percentage, second in opponent pass efficiency rating and takeaways and third in scoring defense.

No reason not to expect that in the next year or two Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof will have the much-maligned Oklahoma defense back to championship level. They’ve already made a big bet on the defensive side of the ball with the transfers and recruits they are bringing in for the coming season, and they have more top defenders targeted for both 2022 and 2023.

But don’t for a minute read into this that Venables is taking his eye off the ball offensively. Unlike Riley, who served as his own offensive coordinator and called all the offensive plays, Venables brought in former Mississippi offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to lead those responsibilities.

Just a few hours after quarterback Caleb Williams announced he was entering the transfer portal. Lebby wasted no time in picking up Dillon Gabriel from the transfer portal. Gabriel who had a couple of outstanding seasons under head coach Josh Heupel at UCF before he suffered a season-ending injury last season, had committed to UCLA for the 2022 season and was just a day or two away from enrolling before flipping to the Sooners.

For the record, Gabriel led the country in passing offensive in 2019, averaging 357 passing yards per game with 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

And Lebby wasn’t done, he followed up the recruitment of Gabriel, who has as many as three seasons of eligibility remaining, by landing a commitment from former Florida four-star QB commitment Nick Evers. And Evers came as a two-for-one package because another Florida decommitment, WR Jayden Gibson, decided to join Evers at OU. Lebby also has a commitment from a four-star QB prospect for 2023, Jackson Arnold.

The Oklahoma offense is losing some key weapons from the 2021 roster, but there is enough talent returning, combined with some talented transfers coupled with the eighth-ranked 2022 recruiting class, that the Sooner offense should still be quite formidable. The biggest issue offensively may be the offensive line, but offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is a master at getting the right people in the right places and getting the most out of his O-line depth. If the O-line is an issue in 2022, it should only be a short-term problem.

Riley may have wanted to steer clear of SEC, but this staff is primed and ready

Oklahoma has seven new additions to the coaching staff, including two new coordinators, and Venables retained four members of Riley’s staff (Bedenbaugh, running backs coach DeMarco Murray, wide receivers coach Cale Gundy, tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley).

It is difficult to tell at this early stage whether this coaching staff is an upgrade over the previous staff, but the accomplishments and experience of the staff additions is impressive and should put the Sooners in a position to continue to be successful.

It’s still a bit early to predict what Oklahoma will look like in the fall in Venables’ first season as head coach. There will be a lot of changes on both offense and defense. While the offense may take a step back, by Oklahoma standards, for a year or two, you can expect the Sooner defense to get much stronger, taking the pressure off the offense of having to score on practically every possession.

One thing is clear, however, Venables has assembled a staff with experience and results in some of the best college programs and, importantly, with strong recruiting connections in the southern states, the heart of SEC Country. All of this should end up putting Oklahoma in a better position to succeed in the SEC than might have been with the staff and program structure under Riley.

Right now, however, the focus is still on the Big 12 and winning another conference championship. For the immediate future, the Sooners will be different, but they are going to be stronger in other ways. all of which should make them as dynamic as ever going forward.