NORMAN — Shortly after Oklahoma’s Cheez-It Bowl defeat last December, right as the Sooners turned the page on 2022, Brent Venables stood before his players and made something clear.
In the audience were those remaining from the program’s worst season in 25 years, an exhausting, often exasperating 6-7 finish. They would make up the backbone of the 53-year-old coach’s Year 2 rebuttal.
Venables’ message came sharp and direct.
“When the season ended he changed the tone real quick,” said Gracen Halton, the second-year defensive lineman.
“He came in and said that we can’t do nothing if we’re all divided. We have to be one. And that’s something that’s stuck in our hearts and our heads. We have to be one. No matter what. We have to be together. I feel like we all bought in on that.”
But as the Sooners’ final run through the Big 12 Conference commences Saturday inside Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium (11 a.m. CT, Fox), are they really different?
On paper, so much looks the same. Remember it? The Sooners were 3-0 and buzzing last September, too. That team dropped its next three games, careened to a 3-6 conference finish and spiraled in the season’s final month.
OU enters Big 12 play this weekend unbeaten through three games. Yet this time, the program embarks on the nine-game conference slate with a stiffer confidence and carrying an assuredness in the depth, quality and mettle it possesses to withstand what lies ahead.
“I do think it is different,” Venables said following the Sooners’ 66-17 win Saturday at Tulsa.
“I do feel like we’ve got a better edge. I think we have more maturity. I think we have a better football IQ. I think we have more competitive depth. And again, hunger. A chip on our shoulder. All those things to perform better than we did a year ago.”
Those feelings will be challenged over the next 11 Saturdays.
The 16th-ranked Sooners can expect to be tested some by Cincinnati and Iowa State in the next two weeks, much more by No. 7 Texas at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 7.
So, what do OU’s early season numbers tell us about how the program’s improvement? How the culture has evolved? Where things stand with the foundation Venables is laying down 21 months into his tenure?
And what does the coach’s message, the one that resonated so deeply with Halton and his teammates, mean to Sooner championship aspirations?
“Teams that are close, teams that know each other, teams that trust each other through all of it, that have great respect for each other, that’s important,” Venables said. “For us, as we build our program, we want guys where that’s important to them as well.”
The first cracks appeared last fall in the conference-opening loss to Kansas State on Sept. 24. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof believes the OU defense that meets Cincinnati 364 days later is further along.
“I think when you look at tape we’ve executed better than at this point last year,” he said “But that’s only three weeks into the season. It’s about today and tomorrow and Saturday and this week. We have something to prove every day.”
The eye test suggests OU is trending upward on defense. So do the numbers.
A revamped defensive line has yet to produce sustained backfield pressure. But the Sooners rank 11th in yards per carry allowed (2.3) and 16th in ground yards allowed per game (78.3), an early improvement over last season (4.5 per carry, 187.5 per game).
In the secondary, a deeper unit is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 56.6% completion percentage compared to 61.9% that finished 92nd nationally in 2022. That group’s four interceptions have contributed to a +6 turnover margin that ranks fourth nationally.
To Roof’s point, the Sooners are tackling better. They’ve missed 24 tackles, half as many as a year ago at this point, according to Pro Football Focus metrics.
Depth helps, too. The Sooners are playing 35 defenders per game compared to 26.5 in 2022 when they lost five one-score games. That number will dip when competition jumps starting this weekend, but the value of contributors like Peyton Bowen, Kip Lewis and the expanded rotation the Sooners boast up front will only grow.
The Sooners, Venables and his staff of assistants said frequently through the offseason, had to be more efficient. That starts on third down.
Oklahoma’s defense is surrendering first downs on only 29.7% of third-down attempts to rank 12th in the nation. The Sooner offense leads the nation, converting 67.6% of the time on third down.
“Our decision-making is good right now and the big boys have kept No. 8 clean,” said Lebby. “When those things happen, you’ve got a chance to go operate.”
For individual growth, look no further than Dillon Gabriel and Danny Stutsman.
Gabriel is drawing whispered Heisman Trophy hype and ranks among the nation’s top quarterbacks. Stutsman, the junior linebacker, is on pace to lead the Big 12 in tackles again and appears to have taken another jump, encapsulated in his eye-catching pick-six at Tulsa.
The early performances of the respective pillars of OU’s offense and defense stand among the sea of indicators of change in Norman.
“We’ve made so much improvement,” Stutsman said earlier this month. “I’m so proud of how far we’ve come.”
Consider the roster turnover since Dec. 2021: 97 of the 123 players are in their first or second year with the program. Fewer than 25 remain from Lincoln Riley’s final team.
“We’re a lot closer than last year,” veteran defensive tackle Isaiah Co said. “Not to say that we weren’t (in 2022). But we’re more of a family. We do everything together. We have more bonding time. We have more togetherness.”
Multiple Sooners have described the connection among the players who experienced Venables’ first fall and returned to the program in 2023.
“I think last year galvanized us a little bit,” said wide receiver Drake Stoops. “The people who were here — that was a tough year for us.”
The togetherness coaches and players have outlined has developed away from the field since January through dinners, movie nights and summer trips across position groups and ages.
Halton, a second-year defensive tackle, names wide receiver Jayden Gibson, lineback Dasan McCullough and safeties Billy Bowman and Key Lawrence among his closest teammates.
“We have that relationship where when we have a bad day we can go to guys on the team and say it,” Halton explained. “‘It’s ‘Hey I got you. I got your back and carry it on,’. It’s like you’re watching the movie ‘300’. They work together no matter what. That’s what this team is.”
Those bonds were tested for the first time in Week 2 against SMU.
Up 14-3 at halftime, OU went stagnant on offense in the third quarter and the Mustangs cut the gap to 14-11 less than three minutes into the fourth quarter. The sequence bore a resemblance to a handful of the Sooners’ 2022 losses.
This time OU hit back. The Sooners responded with a 3:08 scoring drive, then forced a three-and-out that paved the way for Jalil Farooq’s 21-yard touchdown reception.
Five minutes and 29 seconds after the SMU touchdown, OU was on its way to a comfortable 28-11 victory in a game Venables would later say the Sooners might not have won last fall.
“I think last year when adversity struck both sides kind of came at each other a bit,” Stutsman said afterward.
“I think some of those big plays would have allowed them to get some momentum,” he continued. “We stayed poised and responded. We bent but didn’t break.”
It was all so different from the pitfalls that followed last fall’s 3-0 start. Yet as the Sooners look ahead into the conference now, the wounds of 2022 haven’t been forgotten, either.
“When we break it down as a defense (after practice) we make sure we remind everybody, even the guys that weren’t here, that we were 3-0 last year and after that we lost a couple games,” Woodi Washington told reporters this week. “So we’ve just got to keep on preaching it.”
Venables believes his mission of impressing the values, beliefs and culture of the program he envisions molding at OU is a continual effort.
“That process never stops,” he said. “You are always building. You are always nurturing. You are always protecting.”
The type of player who fits Venables’ defense might vary by position. The makeup of the players he wants in his program is universal.
“I’m talking about guys that strain,” he said prior to the season. “Guys that lead. Guys that bring out the best in people around them. Guys that like to compete. Guys that like to be the example. They handle tough, hard coaching. They handle adversity well. They’re gonna be models of consistency.”
Those are the characters Venables sees as the foundation of his program. The list of players on his roster who tick those boxes is a good deal longer in 2023.
“We had good leadership last year,” Venables said. “We just didn’t have enough. I think we’ve got more guys who are capable of winning and more guys who are capable of leading.”
It’s the latest piece in Venables’ program-building architecture and one of his sources measured optimism this fall.
He’ll find out just how much of a difference it makes between now and Jan. 1. So will we.