Until Brent Venables fixes Oklahoma’s pass rush, the Sooners can’t be considered SEC contenders

The Oklahoma pass rush was one of the worst in the country last season and despite Brent Venables' defensive identity, the former DC hasn't done enough to address the problem either through the transfer portal or in recruiting.
Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables
Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was a big change for the Oklahoma football program handing the reins over to Brent Venables after Lincoln Riley darted for USC in 2021. Following a mass exodus, Venables’ first season at the helm was a 6-7 disaster, but 2023 was a step in the right direction, going 10-3 with an Alamo Bowl loss without Dillon Gabriel. 

Despite the drastic shift from an offensive genius to Clemson’s former defensive coordinator, the Sooners will carry a similar identity into the SEC this fall. Jeff Lebby, now at Mississippi State, continued to run an air-raid passing game which got the most out of Gabriel, and Venables’ defense finished outside the top 50 in the country and allowed a staggering 250.8 passing yards a game, ranking 112th. 

For the next few years, 2023 five-star quarterback Jackson Arnold will be the most important player in Oklahoma’s football program, so Venables sought to upgrade his weaponry this offseason, adding Deion Burks from Purdue to his receiver corps and rebuilding the team’s offensive line. New OC Seth Littrell will run a similar style and the Sooners will try to outscore their new SEC opponents.

Despite these necessary offensive upgrades, Oklahoma’s head coach is betraying his identity and his background on the defensive side of the ball and that lack of investment in defense will keep the Sooners from contending for the SEC crown. 

The Big 12 was rarely ever won with defense and physical play in the trenches. The league’s identity was one of offensive firepower and getting speedsters in space. Venables likely reasoned that he would acquire as much offensive talent as possible and be able to scheme up a passable defense to survive in his new conference. At least that's what his recent roster moves have indicated.

Well, even in last year’s 10-win campaign he was proven wrong, giving up 38 points to Kansas and backup quarterback Jason Bean in a loss, and allowing Oklahoma State’s journeyman QB, Alan Bowman, to throw for 334 yards in Bedlam the next week. 

Last year, Ethan Downs led the Sooners in sacks with just 4.5, and the team’s 1.8 sacks per game ranked 91st nationally. Downs produced a pass-rush win rate of 10.6% which was 245th in the country among defensive linemen and edge rushers with at least 100 pass-rush snaps. Five-star freshman Adepoju Adebawore led the defensive line with a 14.7% win rate and was 90th nationally. 

Adebawore will be the team’s most impactful edge rusher in 2024, but Venables is putting too great a burden on his sophomore by failing to surround him with other players who can get after the quarterback and draw the attention of the offensive line. 

Two of the team’s biggest additions this offseason were five-star freshman defensive lineman David Stone and Damonic Williams, a nose tackle from TCU. Both will be factors in the run game, but Williams produced just 18 pressures with a pass-rush win rate of 5.2% in 241 pass-rush snaps. Even Adebawore, who had a great freshman year, only produced 13 pressures and two sacks, so a young interior player like Stone can’t be counted on for much. 

Long-term, Stone and Adebawore could terrorize SEC offensive linemen, forcing them to pick their poison with a double-team leaving one or the other on an island. For right now, Oklahoma is far too weak on the defensive line to compete with the talent spread across the rest of the SEC. 

Downs is back, so he and Adebawore will be joined by Miami Ohio transfer Caiden Woullard, but it’s not enough. A coaching change and roster exodus are tough things to overcome, so it’s fair to have patience with Venables. But a head coach’s hubris is even more difficult to conquer. Until Venables admits he can’t scheme his way to an elite defense without pouring resources into his defensive line, Oklahoma will get pushed around in its new conference and will struggle to even qualify for the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff.

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