Oklahoma football: Sooners placing major emphasis on improving defensive play in 2023

Florida State Seminoles running back Treshaun Ward (8) fights his way into the end zone for a touchdown. The Florida State Seminoles defeated the Oklahoma Sooners 35-32 in the Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022.Fsu V Oklahoma Second Half074a
Florida State Seminoles running back Treshaun Ward (8) fights his way into the end zone for a touchdown. The Florida State Seminoles defeated the Oklahoma Sooners 35-32 in the Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022.Fsu V Oklahoma Second Half074a /

Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, we will be taking a spring preseason look at the offensive and defensive units and what fans can expect for the 2023 Oklahoma football season as well as a breakdown and preview of each individual position group on offense and defense for the upcoming season. We start with defensive unit, which is expected the represent the biggest area of improvement in Year 2 of the Brent Venables era of Sooner football.

With Oklahoma spring practice starting this week, it seems fitting to kick off our annual spring preview of all of the position groups as well an early look at the 2023 OU football season, which will be the final one as a member of the Big 12.

Nowhere is the need for improvement greater than with a beleaguered defensive unit that in recent years has become one of the worst in college football.

Prior to last season, Brent Venables’ first as the Oklahoma head coach, only one Venables-led defense (in 13 prior seasons at OU and 10 at Clemson allowed more than 250 passing yards a game or more than 155 rushing yards per contest.

In 2022, Oklahoma’s pass defense yielded 273.5 yards per game, 13th worst out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and averaged 187.5 rushing yards on defense, 106th nationally. Winning games becomes increasingly difficult under those conditions.

No one was more bothered by all of this or more determined to get it fixed than Venables, who in 10 seasons at Clemson was recognized as one of the best defensive coaches in college football.

The problem, as Venables related during his press conference this week the day before the start of spring practice is, “It never happens fast enough. And wherever we are by the end of next season, it’s still not going to be good enough.

"“The best of the best are never satisfied. (But) I expect us to be on a different planet defensively,” the Sooner head coach said."

Oklahoma returns six players who made at least nine starts last season, and that returning experience in the new defensive system that was installed in the 2022 season is an advantage over what was in place last season.

Among the returning players Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof are counting on for big seasons and defensive leadership this fall are leading tackler Danny Stutsman and standout safety Billy Bowman.

In addition to those returning on defense, seven of the 13 scholarship players the Sooners acquired through the transfer portal bring their talent and experience to the defensive side of the ball.

LB Dasan McCullough, who played his freshman season at Indiana, may be the best of the lot. He is a fierce tackler and was a standout for Indiana. His athleticism, speed and versatility makes him ideal for the “Cheetah” position in the Sooner defense.

Oklahoma’s defense front was pushed around and overmatched too much last season. The Sooners are adding transfers Rondell Bothroyd, who had 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons for Wake Forest, and Trace Ford (Oklahoma State) to beef up the edge rusher postion as well as Jacob Lacey (Notre Dame) on the interior along with Davon Sears (Texas State). If nothing else, these additions give OU more depth and experience up front.

Reggie Pearson, who had a strong season at safety for Texas Tech a year ago, switched allegiance to Oklahoma in the offseason, adding depth and experience at the back end of the Sooner defense.

A good number of the transfers on defense are expected to have a positive impact, if not a big impact, in the coming season.

The defensive transformation never seems to come quick enough, but the transfer portal does allow you to plug the gaps more quickly. “But you gotta find the right guys,” Venables said at the press conference on Monday. “Guys that are team guys, learn well and are going to come and compete every day.”

The Oklahoma head coach is very high on the Sooners’ top-four ranked 2023 recruiting class, especially with the elite prospects coming in on defense.

“I really feel through recruiting, we’ve strengthened our roster defensively, especially in the secondary,” Venables said.

A couple of five-star freshmen defensive recruits — safety Peyton Bowen and defensive end Adepoju “P.J.” Adebawore — have the talent and ability to find their way into the starting lineup if not seeing quite a bit of playing time during the coming season.

"“We’ve got to get better, coaches and players,” Venables said this week. “I know we have the right foundation. We’ve got to continue to improve with our fundamentals. Out techniques. Our understanding. And again the physicality that it takes to win and win with great defense.”"

Defensive coordinator Roof told reporters after the Tuesday practice session that the defensive unit is way ahead of where it was last spring. “But we should be,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress this offseason.”

The biggest point of emphasis this spring has to do with approach, Roof said.

"“The right mindset. An attack mindset,” the Sooner defensive coordinator said. “We attack everything. Every day. And if we do that, we’ll be just fine.”"

Next: We look at the evolving offensive side of the ball for 2023.