If Sooners don’t muscle up at Big 12 line of scrimmage, it will be curtains in SEC

If Sooners don’t muscle up at Big 12 line of scrimmage, it will be curtains in SEC

We’ll see how the Sooners earn their way in their new, dangerous home next year. They would be wise to lay a thicker foundation starting now.

Guerin Emig

By Guerin Emig

| Aug 31, 2023, 4:47pm CDT

Guerin Emig

By Guerin Emig

Aug 31, 2023, 4:47pm CDT

Brent Venables has built his football life on the principle of meeting a man head on and driving him back. Thus a seemingly simple line from his Oklahoma press conference the other day that cannot be overstated: 

I thought we were soft in short-yardage situations and got knocked off the ball.

Venables said it in reference to a defensive line that did not consistently man up on third and fourth downs of 2 yards or less to go, a sizable factor in OU finishing 6-7 his first year as head coach. He could have said it about his offensive line. 

Thus Venables’ need for Andrew Raym, Savion Byrd, Jordan Kelley, Jonah Laulu and the rest of OU’s trench men to turn “soft” into “hard” starting with their 11 a.m. opener against Arkansas State Saturday. The mission extends the rest of 2023, and most certainly into 2024 when the Sooners join the SEC. 

“Yes sir. It’s eat or get eaten there,” said OU defensive lineman Da’Jon Terry, who spent the past two years at Tennessee. “It’s competitive. It’s physical. Every down you’d better be ready to bring your A game.”

That warning echoed across the room from Terry during OU’s Media Day at the start of preseason camp.

“It’s where I played and what I know all about,” said OU defensive tackles coach Todd Bates, an Alabama defensive end from 2001-04 and Clemson defensive assistant from 2017-21. “I’ve competed against them in national championships. The thing you know when you go into that league is you’ve gotta bring it every week. You’ve gotta show up. You don’t have an opportunity to rest on your reputation.”

Reputations are earned at the line of scrimmage. There were 24 SEC offensive and defensive linemen drafted into the NFL last April, compared to 13 from programs currently in the Big 12 Conference, its four newcomers included. 

We’ll see how the Sooners earn their way in their new, dangerous home next year. They would be wise to lay a thicker foundation starting now. That did not happen in 2022 when inconsistency reigned. 

OU allowed Kansas State to convert three of four runs on third and fourth down with 2 yards or less to go. The Sooners fell 41-34.

OU allowed Texas to convert all three of its third-and-1 or -2 running plays. The Sooners were gashed all three times, a microcosm of a 49-0 embarrassment. 

OU allowed Baylor to convert a pair of fourth-and-1 runs, including one from the Bears’ 29-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Sooners fell 38-35.

Venables’ offensive line was more muscular last year generally, but still suffered ill-timed breakdowns.

OU went just 2-of-6 on third and fourth down with 2 yards or less to go in a 23-20 loss at West Virginia. The Sooners went 2-of-4 with the same downs and distances against Texas, and 1-of-3 against K-State. 

Small wonder that offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby made this important point during OU’s recent preseason camp: “We’re gonna go as the big boys go. This game is won in the trenches.”

Lebby ran Ole Miss’ offense for two years before relocating to Norman with Venables. He knows his statement goes for now and later, even as he refuses to budge from OU’s task at hand. 

I’m concerned about Monday’s practice, Tuesday’s practice, playing really, really well Saturday,” he said this week. “Bill (Bedenbaugh, OU’s offensive line coach) has done an incredible job recruiting that room, and we’ve got really good depth in that room. Playing well at the line of scrimmage is something we’ve been able to hang our hat on here for a long, long time, especially with Bill…

“The focus, without a doubt, is playing our butt off on Saturday. But I do feel like we signed a really good class last year.”

Across the ball, OU has picked up a commitment from five-star defensive tackle David Stone for next year’s recruiting class. That can’t hurt the Sooners’ SEC transition. 

This can really help: OU’s current linemen in their current conference doing heavier lifting and more moving on third- and fourth-and-short.

Will they?

“I need to see for myself,” Venables said this week. “You feel like you’ll be better for lots of reasons. We’re a more physical team, I believe, at the point of attack, particularly on defense.”

And deeper, Venables said, thanks to incoming transfers and roster development. And smarter in terms of understanding Venables’ system.

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Guerin Emig is a columnist for the Sellout Crowd network. Read his work at selloutcrowd.com and guerinemig.com. Reach out with feedback and/or ideas at [email protected] or (918) 629-6229. Follow him on Twitter at @GuerinEmig and Instagram at @guerin.emig. .

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