Oklahoma football: This is year Brent Venables pivots on critics

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables talks with OU's Dasan McCullough during a practice for the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) football team in Norman, Okla., Friday, Aug. 4, 2023.
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables talks with OU's Dasan McCullough during a practice for the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) football team in Norman, Okla., Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. /

Brent Venables is quick to tell you he runs toward challenges, not away from them. He is at his best going up against and finding ways around and through adversity. That’s a good thing, because he’s had his share in heading into his second season as head coach of Oklahoma football.

The Oklahoma head coach coached defenses for 26 years, 23 as a defensive coordinator, before getting his first head-coaching opportunity. He had been on the short list for a head-coaching job most of his stay at Clemson, where he built and produced some of the best defensive teams in college football over that time. Before that, he had some very good defensive teams at Oklahoma.

So it was little surprise that OU athletic director Joe Castiglione made a beeline to bring Venables back to Oklahoma following the sudden and surprising departure of Lincoln Riley. His defensive prowess was a factor, for sure, but more than that, Venables was one of OU’s own, having spent 13 highly successful seasons in Norman under Bob Stoops.

No one on the planet questions Venables’ excellence as a defensive wizard and as a top recruiter and teacher of elite defensive players. He is already proof positive of that. He still has to demonstrate, however, that he has what it takes to become a successful college head coach.

That is always the case when someone who has never been a head coach before takes on that role for the first time. It doesn’t matter how successful the person had been as a player, an assistant or as a coordinator. The skills and leadership qualities that are necessary to be successful in those other roles are different from what is required of a head coach, whose expertise and scope of responsibilities, not to mention the accountability, are much broader.

Oklahoma suffered through a highly uncharacteristic 6-7 season a year ago, the Sooners’ first losing season in a quarter century. Needless to say, as much as Venables was a fan favorite coming back to OU, there were plenty of fans and media types who were calling for his head after just one season on the job. Some wrongfully expected Venables to come in and immediately fix a Sooner defense that wasn’t just bad. It was one of the 10 worst defensive units out of 131 teams in the top level of college football.

At the very least, the Sooner Nation did not expect the new and widely popular Oklahoma head coach to take a team that was 11-2 the year before and 7-2 in the Big 12 to finish five-games worse in the win column and, worse yet, a suffer a 49-0 beatdown against archrival Texas.

Venables is keenly aware that OU’s 6-7 record in his first season as head coach is unacceptable and far below the high standards of Oklahoma football. Unfortunately, the disappointing 2022 season only served to fuel the criticism of those who questioned whether Venables was the right hire for the job.

Year 2 for Oklahoma under Venables should be better. But expectations are sky high once again. The experts who make a living by setting college football odds and over/unders project the Sooners to win as many as 10 games and finish as high as second in the new 14-team Big 12 this season.

Twelve points is all that separated the Sooners from potentially ending up with a 10-3 record last season instead of 6-7. Fans and critics may not recall that Lincoln Riley’s 11-2 Oklahoma team the year before Venables arrived won six games by seven or fewer points. What you can deduce from this is that Venables’ 2022 OU team wasn’t a bad as the record suggests, and Riley’s 2021 team wasn’t as good as its record.

The brutal truth is the team Venables inherited from Riley was highly flawed, especially on the defensive side, and severely depleted of playmakers, including two former five-star quarterbacks who followed their head coach out the door.

This will be Year 2 for the returning players in the Venables defensive system as well as the one offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby installed at OU. With greater comfort and understanding should come quicker reaction time and better results. Venables has added to the rebuild with a top-five ranked recruiting class and a transfer class ranked in the top-10 nationally.

The expectations are always going to be high at Oklahoma. I can assure you that Venables’ expectations are no different, but he is also a realist and recognizes that the OU defensive presence has been in decline for multiple years and it will take some time build the kind of defense that has Venables’ name on it and that Sooner fans are expecting with him as head coach.

Venables is cautioning everybody that while he believes the Sooners will be better in Year 2 of his reign, there is still a lot of work to be done. That’s the way the OU head coach is trying to manage expectations.

My take on all of this is less cautionary. I think that the Sooner defense is going to be much better than the critics are leading us to believe, and while you always expect an Oklahoma offense to be able to move the ball and put up plenty of points, I won’t be a bit surprised to see the 2023 OU offense exceed the numbers of last year’s group.

Improvement on both sides of the ball has to bode well for the Sooners in the coming season. And not having to play Kansas State, Baylor and Texas Tech is an added bonus.

If there’s truth in the popular quote by Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are,” then when Oklahoma goes 10-2 or, better yet, 11-1 in the regular season it should quiet or at least dial down the critics who have doubted Brent Venables’ ability to get the job done at Oklahoma and lead the Sooners back to relevancy.

And to think this is just a step forward in the progression…