Oklahoma football: Is OU unable to close on big-name defensive recruits?

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 3: Oklahoma Sooners fans pack the stands for a game against the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 3, 2022 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma won 45-13. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 3: Oklahoma Sooners fans pack the stands for a game against the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 3, 2022 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma won 45-13. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

Oklahoma football recruiting has been able to attract and land elite offensive players for a very long time. That’s what a long history of high-powered, high-scoring offensive performance will do for you.

The same cannot be said about OU’s recruitment and development of highly rated defensive talent, especially over the previous decade.

That is changing, though, as we might have expected it to, with Brent Venables back in town. Under his predecessor, getting elite defensive players was a non-starter. Four- and five-star defensive recruits wanted no part of what was going on at Oklahoma on defense.

That has not been the case since Venables arrived back in town. The Sooners’ signed two five-star defensive players — S Peyton Bowen and edge rusher P.J. Adebawore — in their top-five-ranked 2023 recruiting class (the first OU class that was fully Venables’). That class also included eight four-star defensive prospects.

The big issue facing Venables and his staff, particularly the defensive assistants, is that in the hearts and minds of Sooner fans, the transformation can’t be fast enough.

Both with the 2023 class and in the current recruiting cycle, Oklahoma has been a big player in targeting top-rated defensive talent, and the OU staff is showing it can get top defensive prospects to come to Oklahoma. There is a big difference, however, going after the best defensive talent available and getting those prospects to commit to and sign with your program.

But unlike teams with strong defensive reputations, such as Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State, Oklahoma is still very much an outlier in the recruitment of the very best in defensive talent.

Twice in the past year, Oklahoma has been reported to be in the lead in the recruitment of a pair of five-star defensive linemen, one in the 2023 cycle and one in the current cycle, only to learn at the time of the commitment announcement that both players had been won over by another school. D.J. Hicks, the top-rated D-lineman in the 2023 class chose Texas A&M over Oklahoma. And just this past week, Williams Nwaneri, the No. 1 defensive lineman and No. 3 player overall in the 2024 class.

Because of this, the boo birds and ever-present critics of Oklahoma football question the Sooners’ ability to seal the deal when it comes to landing the best of the best in defensive talent.

First of all, you’re not going to win every recruiting battle. I don’t care what school you are. There are too many factors at play in today’s game, including the bags of money that are being tossed in front of these elite prospects courtesy of NIL (Name, Image, Likeness). Let’s face it, some schools have deeper donor pockets that others.

Second, Oklahoma is starting to show it not only can compete and win recruiting battles for top offensive players on a national basis, which the Sooners have been doing for a long while now, but also the best of the available defensive talent.

Case in point: Both Peyton Bowen and P.J. Adebawore are expected to play a lot this season and have an impact when they’re in the game.

Sooner fans will vividly remember the recruiting battle for Bowen. The five-star defensive back first committed to Notre Dame, then to Oregon on National Signing Day in December, before flipping and signing with Oklahoma the day after committing to Oregon.

Guess what? The recruitment of Williams Nwaneri may not be over yet either. On Thursday night, Nwaneri’s Lee’s Summit North High School team was in Oklahoma for a scrimmage with Tulsa Union. Nwaneri was seen wearing OU gloves and shoes with the OU insignia on them.

Speaking with reporters after the scrimmage, Nwaneri said:

"“Yeah, they’re (Oklahoma) still recruiting me and all that,” he said. “I’m gonna let everything play out. I’ll let the whole season play out. I’m committed to MU, though.About wearing Oklahoma gear, he said: “Just having fun with it. Showing love. All that.”"

You tell, me. Does that sound like he is totally satisfied with his commitment decision? It reminds me of the famous Michael Corleone line from the “Godfather Part II”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Nwaneri isn’t the only top-rated defensive player the Sooners are still heavily pursuing in the 2024 class. OU is currently the favorite to land five-star defensive lineman David Stone, who is scheduled to announce his commitment decision on Aug. 26. And the Sooners are in the mix for several other elite defenders who are expected to declare their choices between now and the end of September.

In today’s college game, the tradition high school recruiting process isn’t the only channel by which to stock up on top defensive players. The transfer portal provides a means of adding to and complementing the existing roster with players who have skills and experience and can fill areas of need and make an immediate contribution.

Examples of this on the Sooners’ 2023 roster are defensive lineman Rondell Bothroyd, a transfer from Wake Forest. He has one year of eligibility remaining and was one of the best defensive players available in the portal.  He could have gone anywhere in the country but elected to come to OU and play for Venables. Da’Jon Terry, from Tennessee, was easily the best defensive tacke in the portal, and he is at Oklahoma this season.

Linebacker Dasan McCullough was ranked in the top 15 of most of the 2023 transfer portal rankings, and he comes to Oklahoma after an outstanding freshman season at Indiana, the highest ranked defensive recruit in the program’s history.

All three of these transfers will play immediately for the Sooners and should have an immediate impact in the Oklahoma defense for 2023.

Next. Sooners' top-five uncommitted 2024 recruiting targets. dark

So, back to the original question — can the Sooners close on big-name defensive talent? — the answer is yes. And this is just the beginning.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in