OU coach Brent Venables’s familiarity with Sun Tzu and other things we learned Tuesday

OU coach Brent Venables’s familiarity with Sun Tzu and other things we learned Tuesday

The Sooners’ coach hit on “The Art of War”, UCF’s high-powered offense, Jovantae Barnes and offered praise for guard Caleb Shaffer.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 17, 2023, 2:52pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 17, 2023, 2:52pm CDT

NORMAN — Perhaps Brent Venables got some reading done on the bye week.

On his weekly coaches show Monday night, the Sooners’ head coach referenced a quote from Greek philosopher Aristotle on the subject of sustaining success. Tuesday morning, speaking to reporters ahead of sixth-ranked Oklahoma’s visit from UCF at 11 a.m. Saturday, Venables turned to Sun Tzu. 

“I think it was Sun Tzu in the Art of War talking about deception as something utilized on the battlefield,” he responded to a question on the wrinkles UCF’s Gus Malzahn’s throw at opposing defenses. “For football or sport, I think it’s always a good thing, both sides of the ball. I think that’s a good part of strategy.”

Malzahn, who coordinated a national championship offense at Auburn in 2010 and later coached the Tigers back to the title game in 2014, has built a reputation for throwing trick plays and deceptions at opposing defenses. That’s carried through to his three seasons with the Knights, which have seen UCF log 32.8 points per game and a record of 21-12. 

“If they run the screen, they’re gonna run the screen and go,” Venables said. “If they run the sprint, they’ve got the sprint throwback. If they run the stretch, they’re gonna run the flea-flicker. They double-pass. They throw back to the quarterback. You’ve got the fumblerooski. You’re gonna get the jet pass.” 

“All of those things to slow your aggression down and to manipulate you. We try to work on that every single week as part of our normal, even if they don’t do it.” 

Venables would know, and he’s had success corralling Malzahn’s attacks. 

Venables saw Malzahn’s Auburn offenses in 2016 and 2017 during his run as defensive coordinator at Clemson. Both meetings ended in Clemson wins; Malzahn and Co. didn’t score more than 20 points on either occasion.

Venables will hope to repeat that success in Week 8. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” 

UCF’s high-powered offense: The Knights come to Norman 3-3, which is not a reflection of UCF’s dynamic offense.

“They are a very, very explosive offense, one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football,” Venables said. “A top-five offense when it comes to total offense.”

Indeed, UCF makes its first-ever visit to Owen Field ranked fourth nationally in total offense (516.7 yards). It possesses the country’s third-ranked run game (246.3 yards) and the 26th highest-scoring offense (35.0 points) among FBS programs. On Monday, UCF’s offensive line landed on the midseason honor roll for the Joe Moore Award, the honor given annually to the nation’s most outstanding offensive line unit.

Most impressive in all of that? UCF has done it mostly without starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. 

Plumlee missed most of the Knights’ last four games with a leg injury but is expected to start Saturday. He accounted for 2,586 passing yards, 862 rushing yards and 25 total scores in 2022 at UCF. 

“We know having him back will give them a real charge,” Venables said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for our team.”

Digging into the guard depth: In terms of availability, Sooners right guard McKade Mettauer is a model of consistency. The former Cal transfer has started 47 of his last 48 games, including all 19 since coming to OU in 2022.

Now, with Mettauer sidelined for at least this week by an ankle injury, OU will test its depth at the guard positions. That should signal opportunities for each of Troy Everett, Cayden Green, Caleb Shaffer and Savion Byrd. 

“Those are kind of our guys and you’ll see all of them,” Venables said. 

Byrd, the third-year guard, has not played since exiting with an injury in the Sooners’ Week 3 win at Tulsa on Sept. 16. Venables said Tuesday that Byrd is available in Week 8. 

Venables’ high-praise of Caleb Shaffer:  Mettauer’s injury opens the door for no Sooner more than Shaffer, the transfer who started 35 games across four seasons at Miami (Ohio) before joining the Sooners in 2023.

Shaffer replaced Mettauer in the fourth quarter against Texas and was involved on OU’s game-winning drive. On Saturday, he’s likely to make his first start as a Sooner and will do so as one of the OU’s five team captains for the week.

Venables offered a thoughtful response on the impact Shaffer has made in his short time with the Sooners:  “His perspective is always spot on and he has an amazing perspective. He’s thankful for everything. It starts with probably when he leaves his apartment in the morning he’s got a thankfulness to him and that translates to every other part of his life and certainly as a teammate. So whenever he’s got an opportunity to get in the game, he’s gotten in the game and he’s done very well.”

Among Shaffer’s biggest fans? OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.

“In the games, he plays really well,” Venables said. “Bedenbaugh, if he was up here (with) truth serum, he’d say, ‘He pisses me off in practice, but he gets in those games and he can play.’”  

Everett, Byrd and Green have yet to take a snap on the right side of the Sooners’ offensive line in 2023. As long as Mettauer is out, the right guard spot appears to be Shaffer’s to lose.

Gabriel’s jump from UCF to OU: Venables, unsurprisingly, sidestepped a question about Caleb Williams Tuesday, but he did offer an honest appraisal of the Sooners quarterback situation after the future Heisman Trophy winner hit the transfer portal in Jan. 2022.  

“I don’t really go back and talk about guys that aren’t here anymore, but I thought we needed … our quarterback roster was not what Oklahoma was used to,” Venables said. “I think that goes without saying, for lots of different reasons.”

The first step in the process of flipping the quarterback room was securing Dillon Gabriel, who on Saturday faces the UCF program where he spent the first three seasons of his college career.

The story of Gabriel’s transfer portal commitment to UCLA and the airport-reverse to OU after a phone call from offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby has been well told. Less than two years later, Gabriel finds himself leading a College Football Playoff-contending OU team with a budding Heisman Trophy candidacy. 

“That was a very pressurized moment, if you will, for Dillon and for us,” Venables said. “He had to have a lot of trust and faith and belief and knowing that he had never met me.”

“He bet on himself when it was all said and done. He bet on himself and his relationship with coach Lebby and it worked out really well for all of us.”

Barnes and the cornerbacks: Will running back Jovantae Barnes be healthy enough to contribute in the back half of the season? 

Possibly — we’re hopeful,” Venables said. “Keep trying to bring him along like the other guys.”

The sophomore rusher has not recorded a carry since Week 3, sidelined by lingering issues related to offseason surgery on his right foot. Barnes’ stat line stands at 28 attempts for 122 yards and a touchdown.

“He had the surgery late in the spring and it’s just kind of a funky spot,” Venables said last month. 

Venables says the Sooners are in good shape at cornerback after OU ran thin at the position in the second half against Texas.

“We’re pretty healthy there now, so feel much better,” he said.

Kendel Dolby’s chance inside: Brent Venables remembers what he saw when he first caught Kendel Dolby’s tape.

OU staffers Xavier Brewer and Ryan Carter had identified the lengthy cornerback from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. On the game film, Venables saw a fearless, instinctive defensive back who “plays big” with “great transitional movement.”

The Sooners eventually plucked Dolby from the transfer portal. Now, all of those tools Venables saw are getting tested as Dolby works in at the Sooners’ hybrid linebacker-safety, cheetah position. 

“He knows where the ball’s going,” Venables said. “But he’s got a tremendous upside from where he is today. And I really like where he’s at. And the things that he brings to the table bodes well at that position.”

Lacey’s return: Blood clots that had spread to Jacob Lacey’s lungs left a doctor to tell the Sooners’ defensive tackle he might never play football again earlier this summer. Only months later, the Notre Dame transfer is a fixture in OU’s starting unit who made a critical tackle late in the 34-30 win over Texas. 

Venables acknowledged Tuesday that the OU coaching staff was preparing to move on without Lacey following his summer diagnosis and outlined the commitment that preceded Lacey’s return to the football field this fall.  

“To his credit, he stayed active in all the right ways,” Venables said. “On his own. Did what he could between push-ups and things like that. I don’t probably know the half of it.”

“He stayed fresh and he was at every walkthrough and practice and things of that nature to be around his teammates. So I think all those things helped him from a transition standpoint.” Getting back into the flow of things where it didn’t take him as long as it potentially could have.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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