Brent Venables’ solution to Year 1 troubles? Sell out more to defense

Brent Venables’ solution to Year 1 troubles? Sell out more to defense

The optics weren’t great in 2022, but the Sooners head coach doesn’t care; he’ll spend even more time with OU’s defense.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Aug 31, 2023, 6:31pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Aug 31, 2023, 6:31pm CDT

NORMAN — Brent Venables knows his first-year management of game and clock have been called into question.

“I think I’ve answered that a lot,” Venables said the other day, just before answering it again.

Venables never had to worry about such things when he was designing and calling defenses that shut out Texas and Ohio State and Miami. Then Venables put on a second hat, head coach, and suddenly everyone wanted to know why his ball team wasted two timeouts in the third quarter or kept floorboarding a hurry-up offense with a fourth-quarter lead.

The optics weren’t great with a head coach turning his back to the action to grab an erase board and draw up schemes for one side of the ball, leaving a leadership void for the actual gridiron. Just ask Mike Gundy about that.

But that was 2022 Venables and this is now, with Arkansas State coming to Owen Field for an 11 a.m. Saturday season opener. Venables no longer is a rookie head coach. He has acknowledged the shortcomings of OU’s first losing season since 1998. Venables is going to change his ways.

He’s going to sell out even more for defense.


Going to spend even more time in the defensive meetings. Going to go all-in on defensive practices. Going to turn his back to the offense and grab a marker and scribble like a madman on the Owen Field sidelines.

It’s all part of what Venables calls being more efficient. He figures he didn’t do what he knows how to do as well as he could last season. I know, sounds confusing. But hear him out.

“Kind of being involved to me isn’t where I needed to be,” Venables said. “I need to be completely involved defensively. Not that they need my help. But that’s what I know. That’s how I got to this position.

“And I think a year ago was certainly involved, but not to the depth that I think that I felt like I needed to be after evaluating all of it.”

First, let’s get one thing straight. The Sooner defense needs Venables’ help. OU’s defense was its usual mediocre self a year ago, through little fault of the new head coach. Venables inherited a group of players who long had lost the art of tackling and the concept of coverage. The Sooner talent is a long slide from where it was when Venables left for Clemson 11½ years ago.

Venables proved himself as one of the nation’s top defensive minds, both with the Sooners from 1999-2011 and in 10 years at Clemson.

“The gold standard as a defensive coordinator in college football,” said Ted Roof, who holds the title, if not the power, of OU d-coordinator.

Roof this week said he calls the defensive plays, with Venables retaining quick veto power, and I’m not here to argue. Semantics rule the world. Let’s just all agree that this is Venables’ defense.

Head coaches can function quite well running an offense or defense. Lincoln Riley, you know well. But it can happen on defense, too. Texas Christian erected a statue of its quarter-century defensive coordinator. Fellow by the name of Gary Patterson.

Venables is no pioneer. Others have cut this trail. Some emerged in the land of milk and honey. 

Some did not.

You have to admire Venables’ grit. Damn the torpedoes, he seems to be saying.

“The success and decisions — it will be collective and a collective effort,” Venables said. 

“Everybody has their role. But that’s one area that I know, without question, I could do a good job of just being another voice, another mind and another body and able body to help out.”

All of which probably makes Roof the perfect OU defensive coordinator. Experienced, even as a head coach (Duke, 2003-07). Familiar with Venables (they were at Clemson together in 2021).

Old enough (59) to have set aside his ego, if he ever had one.

“I don’t have an ego that gets in the way,” Roof said. “I just want to be part of a great team. And you know what? He (Venables) is as good as there is in the business. To have that as a resource, I welcome that. I appreciate that. And I respect that. And I also respect the position.”

This is not a chemistry issue. This is a leadership issue. Can Venables juggle both hats? Patterson did it and built TCU into a power. Riley did it and kept OU a power.

“I’ve never been one to lack confidence,” Venables said, “just because the preparation that you put in, the work that you put in, develops a confidence and a clear vision for where you’re going.”

So Venables is doubling down on what he knows best. Which means on game days, he’ll converse outside the headset. Look into players’ eyes. Demand intensity and focus and passion and energy, instead of demanding that his assistants demand it.

Venables will grab the marker and the erase board and draw up defenses that will go a long way to determining whether he succeeds or fails at his other job.

Give him credit. Brent Venables is damning the torpedoes. We said zig, he said zag.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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