Guerin Emig: It will be fascinating to watch Venables water the 2000 seed moving forward, to see how he works around differences that no positive reinforcement can overcome.
Brent Venables’ comparison between this Oklahoma football team to the Sooners’ 2000 national champion is sensible, and not just because the two quarterbacks involved are slightly-built but fiercely-committed lefthanders.
Venables is playing a mind game that old boss Bob Stoops often mastered. Plant a seed in the heads of the players, it just might grow into an oak.
It will be fascinating to watch Venables water the 2000 seed moving forward, to see how he works around differences that no positive reinforcement can overcome.
An example: While the 2000 champions were gifted a healthy starting lineup pretty much every game, the 2023 hopefuls have already lost wide receiver Andrel Anthony and linebacker Justin Harrington to season-ending injuries.
The solution at linebacker, specifically OU’s hybrid “cheetah” position, was obvious – insert Dasan McCullough, the Indiana transfer many figured would start at that spot when camp opened. McCullough has responded with strong play in the three games since Harrington went down, most noticeably during OU’s goal line stand against Texas.
Asked this week about the impact McCullough has on OU’s defense, linebacker Danny Stutsman said: “A massive, massive difference. Having a guy like that, his length, his size, being able to fit gaps… He does a great job of it and he’s a playmaker.”
What to do at wide receiver without Anthony is a little less obvious. The Michigan transfer leads the Sooners with 429 receiving yards. His 27 catches rank second to Drake Stoops’ 29.
Most telling is that Dillon Gabriel has made Anthony his first targeted wide receiver in every game this season. Gabriel threw his first two passes to Anthony against both Arkansas State and SMU the first two weeks, a nod to their immediate connection and trust.
The Sooners have a deep receiving corps. They have wideouts who can, as offensive coaches like to say, tear the top of a defense with go routes. Nic Anderson and Brenen Thompson have catches of 50-plus yards, Jalil Farooq and Jayden Gibson have catches of 40-plus.
There is a way around Anthony’s injury same as there has been one around Harrington’s.
It doesn’t change the fact that negotiating a season is terribly difficult. Two-time defending champ Georgia lost presumed go-to running back Branson Robinson to a season-ending injury in late August. Nobody is immune to the danger.
Nobody has been since the 2000 Sooners were so charmed they might as well have worn ruby slippers instead of cleats, a blessing Bob Stoops often acknowledged over his next 16 seasons as head coach.
Venables has been left to lament his more realistic situation.
“You hate it for Andrel and how hard he’s worked,” he said this week. “We got to 6-0. He had a big part in helping us get there.”
The night OU beat Iowa State and Harrington’s season-ending surgery became official, Venables said: “Justin’s a great leader. If he stood up here right now y’all would just melt with his perspective and his toughness and his love for his teammates. He’s a spectacular guy and he’ll be a big part of helping us lead and keep encouraging our guys and bringing out the best in them.”
Harrington and Anthony can both be positive figures around the team. And while they can’t produce for the team, Venables at least has competitive depth, something that used to be a cliche around the OU camp but is now a life raft.
Stoops was in his second year of head coaching in 2000, same as Venables now. He was trying to build competitive depth back then, but didn’t have the transfer portal to make that easier. Had the ‘00 Sooners lost a Harrington or an Anthony they might have been cooked.
Maybe that’s how Venables waters this seed.
No, his team doesn’t have the 2000 Sooners’ health. Who does?
But yes, his team is in much better position to manage.