Oklahoma football: This Sooner team has different vibe, purpose and personnel

Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables walks with his team before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.Lx15608
Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables walks with his team before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.Lx15608 /

The fastest way to forget a disappointing season is to turn things around by winning. And in the case of the historically proud Oklahoma football program, that means finding ways to win close games instead of putting yourself in position to lose.

Third down was the Sooners’ kryptonite in the 2022 season, their first losing season in a quarter century and the first for Brent Venables as head coach. Oklahoma couldn’t get off the field on third down on defense, and the offense struggled to convert third-down chances and extend possessions and potential scoring drives. Not a healthy recipe for success.

Let’s face it, the team that Venables and his mostly remade coaching staff inherited from Lincoln Riley was nothing remotely close to what Riley took over when Bob Stoops retired. Riley’s approach to the game has always been about producing high-powered offenses, centered around the quarterback, and outscoring your opponents, while hoping the defense can do just enough to hold off the other team’s offense.

That has worked for Riley, but it is also predicated on the offense having a good game every time out. The 2022 Oklahoma season was the classic example of what can happen when the offensive machine starts to sputter.

You can rest assured that no one who bleeds Sooner crimson was more devasted by the Sooners’ 2022 performance, especially on defense, than Venables, the man with the ultimate accountability. After all, Venables reputation as one of the best defensive coaches and recruiters of defensive talent in the college game both followed him and preceded him back to Oklahoma after serving 10 truly outstanding years as defensive coordinator at Clemson.

There is no way to sugarcoat this: Oklahoma’s defense in 2022 was the worst it has been in recent memory — and my memory goes back a pretty long way in OU football history. The Sooners finished 122 out of 131 FBS teams in total defense. They were a little better, but not much, in defending the run (106th), and only 12 teams in the country were worse than Oklahoma defenders in pass defense.

The Sooners couldn’t get off the field on defense last season. They were able to generate some negative plays but weren’t able to get third-down stops. The 335 first downs given up by Oklahoma were the most in the FBS. And it certainly didn’t help that they had the second-most missed tackles of any Big 12 team.

So what is different in 2023?

O.K., enough with the negative. Out with the old and in with the new. Only 21 scholarship players from Riley’s final season remain on the roster. A strong Oklahoma haul in both the transfer portal and in the 2023 incoming recruiting staff has begun the retooling. And if current trends hold, it looks like Venables and his staff are on the way to producing their second straight top-five recruiting class. So the roster remake and talent infusion is well underway.

The Sooners clearly needed an overhaul on defense, and that began in earnest this offseason. Venables wants Oklahoma to be tougher and stronger upfront at the point of attack, which was a hallmark of the elite Clemson defenses under him.

Oklahoma appears set at the tackle positions on defense with Isaiah Coe and Jordan Kelley entrenched there and having been in the Venables’ system for a full year. Returning defensive ends Defensive ends Ethan Downs and Reggie Grimes are primed for breakout years, and Wake Forest transfer Rondell Bothroyd should be a huge (6-foot, 3 inches, 275 pounds), physical and experienced addition to the OU pass rush, which has been marginal at best in recent seasons. Oklahoma also has added Jacob Lacey, a transfer from Notre Dame, to the interior defense.

Linebacker may be the most important position on the defense, which is something Venables knows a thing or two about having played the position.  Junior linebacker Danny Stutsman may be the best player on the Sooner defense. He led Oklahoma in tackles last season and is being looked to to be a team leader again this season. Dasan McCullough, a Freshman All-American at Indiana a year ago, joins the OU roster this season and will play the all-important “Cheetah” position in Venables’ OU defense. Sophomore Jaran Kanak is expected to make a stronger contribution playing in the middle or at the “Mike” linebacker spot.

In the defensive secondary, Texas Tech transfer Reggie Pearson will join Billy Bowman and corners Woodi Washington and Gentry Williams, with backup safeties Key Lawrence and five-star freshman Peyton Bowen also expected to see a lot of playing time. In sum, the back end of the Sooner defense should be stronger and with more rotational depth.

Offensive strength is not being overlooked

While the primary focus this offseason has been geared toward defensive improvement, it has not been at the expense of the offense. Dillon Gabriel, who many consider one of the two best quarterbacks in the Big 12, is back again and with five-star freshman QB Jackson Arnold as a legitimate backup in the wings.

The Sooner running back depth may be the best on the team. Oklahoma turned to the transfer portal again to shore up the offense line and bring in additional receiving weapons (Andrel Anthony from Michigan and Brenan Thompson from Texas), including the return of former Sooner Austin Stogner at tight end.

There should be little, if any, drop off in offensive production from the squad that was the best offensive team in the Big 12 last season and No. 13 in the nation in total offense.

Even still, Oklahoma still found itself behind the chains far too often with second-and-long and third-and-long possessions that the Sooners were unable to convert and sustain drives. That was perhaps OU’s biggest concern on offense last season. Despite that, Oklahoma was still able to average 33 points a game on offense, which should still win you a lot of games with a halfway decent defensive performance.

"“I really feel like through recruiting (including the transfer portal), we’ve strengthened our roster positionally, particularly in the secondary,” Venables said this past spring. “You’ve still got to go prove it at every position across the board.”"

Venables doesn’t believe in recruiting just as a means of adding bodies

Whether it’s the traditional recruiting of high school prospects or looking to bring in players from the transfer portal, Venables doesn’t believe in quick-draw recruiting and bringing in players just for volume sake or to pile up commitments early in the process so the rankings look good.

The second-year OU head coach wants players who not only share his vision of the future for Oklahoma football but are willing to put the work in and what it takes to achieve that vision. He wants guys who are all-in and 100 percent committed to the University of Oklahoma, and he doesn’t want them before they are at that point. He wants a roster fully invested building and sustaining a championship level team.

That’s what Venables is getting and what is transforming the Oklahoma football roster, and Gabriel, for one, praises his head coach and believes that will make a huge difference in returning the Sooners to their winning ways.

Venables isn’t interested in a two- to three-year plan, a slow boil, so to speak, to get things fully back on track. He’s hungry for it right now, which shouldn’t be surprising if you know anything about Venables’ personality.

"“Whatever impatience (the OU players and the fans) have, it pales in comparison to me,” he told reporters recently. ‘Aw, man, don’t worry, there’s time.’ No. I want it yesterday.“Nobody has more of a sense of urgency and a sense of desperation,” he said."