Oklahoma football: New names bringing new outlook, new outcomes to second-rate OU defense

Oklahoma’s Dasan McCullough (1) is pictured at OU media day in Norman, Okla., on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.
Oklahoma’s Dasan McCullough (1) is pictured at OU media day in Norman, Okla., on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. /

When the Oklahoma football defense takes the field this season, Sooner fans as well as the critics expect to see a different look from a year ago.

In steady decline for several seasons, the Sooner defense hit a new low in the 2022 season. The OU defensive unit ranked 122nd out of 132 FBS teams in total defense, 119th in pass defense and 106th in stopping the run.

High-scoring teams like Oklahoma’s are able to win a lot of games, but even the Sooners’ weren’t able to overcome the striking defensive deficiency of last year’s OU team. As a result, Oklahoma won fewer than seven games for the first time in a quarter century. What was even more disappointing, this occurred in Brent Venables’ first season as Oklahoma head coach, whose defensive resume is among the best in college football.

The Sooners’ shameful defensive performance last season, however, can’t completely be blamed on Venables, because he had to play the hand he was dealt by Lincoln Riley and Alex Grinch from the previous OU coaching staff, a crew that looked at defense as a stepchild to what’s really important for a winning football team.

You can’t keep a top dog down for long, though, and Venables is a proven top dog when it comes to recruiting and building championship college defenses. The defensive rebuild at Oklahoma began in earnest this offseason.

Nearly all of Oklahoma’s 2022 recruiting class was recruited by Riley, so the 2023 cycle was really Venables’ first at finding and bringing in the right players to fit his system and the culture he is building with this football program. In fact, 53 of the 71 players Venables inherited from Riley after the 2022 Alamo Bowl are no longer part of the program.

The defensive rebuild began in earnest with the Sooners’ 2023 recruiting class. Sixteen of the 26 players OU signed in the 2023 class are defensive players, including a couple of elite, five-star prospects in DE Adepoju “PJ” Adebawore and S Peyton Bowen, and eight others are rated as four-stars.

Venables also turned to the transfer portal to fill immediate areas of need on the defensive side of the ball, including three defensive linemen, who not only bring multiple years of experience but should see action early and often and have an immediate impact.

At least four of the newcomers for 2023 are projected starters along with several others who project as primary backups.

Perhaps the biggest addition to OU defense in 2023 is Indiana transfer Dasan McCullough. McCullough was a four-star prospect and the No. 43 player in the 2023 class nationally, according to ESPN. He held scholarship offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia and also was recruited by Venables while the OU head coach was defensive coordinator at Clemson.

McCullough was the No. 19 player in the transfer portal and rated as the No. 2 linebacker, according to 247Sports. The first call he received after entering the transfer portal was from Venables at OU. The 6-foot, 5-inch linebacker was impressive in his freshman season at Indiana. He was credited with 49 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in 12 games.

McCullough is expected to play the “Cheetah” position in Venables’ offense. DaShaun White played the position last season for OU.

Venables and his defensive coaches also expect big things from Wake Forest transfer Rondell Bothroyd at defensive end. Bothroyd is expected to provide a veteran presence getting pressure on the quarterback. Last season at Wake Forest, he posted 30 tackles, eight tackles for loss four forced fumbles. The year before he had 16.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Venables knows exactly what he can get out of the veteran D-lineman, having seen him multiple times in games against Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Another key transfer addition to the Sooners’ 2023 defense is Reggie Pearson, who comes to Norman from Texas Tech. Pearson, a very strong and physical defensive back will play the strong safety position for the Sooners. Sooner fans may remember the bone-rattling hit Pearson put on QB Dillon Gabriel in overtime in the loss to Texas Tech last season.

Other transfer additions who are expected to have an impact for Oklahoma on defense this season are Notre Dame DL transfer Jacob Lacey, Oklahoma State transfer Trace Ford on the defensive line and Da’Jon Terry from Tennessee, also on the defensive line.

With the players he had brought in from the portal along with top-rated D-line prospects in both the 2023 and 2024 Sooner recruiting classes, it is fairly obvious Venables is following the plan he had at Clemson in building a championship-level defense that is anchored at the point of attack by outstanding physicality, strength and agility on the defensive front. The transfers provide an immediate need while allowing development of top talent acquired through the traditional recruiting process.

This season’s Oklahoma defense should not be viewed as a finished product, but it most certainly should lay the foundation for future Sooner defenses that will be much closer aligned with what we have come to expect from Brent Venables. The process is underway.