Brent Venables knows sign-stealing is part of football plus six other things we learned Tuesday

Brent Venables knows sign-stealing is part of football plus six other things we learned Tuesday

The Sooners coach talked sign-stealing, Kansas, running back rotiations, Peyton Bowen’s health, R Mason Thomas return and more ahead of OU’s trip to Lawrence.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 24, 2023, 4:03pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 24, 2023, 4:03pm CDT

NORMAN — You’d be naive, perhaps even negligent to assume sign stealing isn’t a part of the sport of college football, says Brent Venables.

“That’s why from year-to-year or week-to-week, since I’ve been coaching, as long as there’s been signaling, you’re always on both sides of the ball changing up your signals and things of that nature,” the Sooners head coach said Tuesday morning. “Even the hand signals on the field that the players will do amongst each other (change).”

The notion of spying and signal swiping has bubbled back to the surface in the midst of the NCAA’s investiagtion into Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing operation, first reported by Yahoo! Sports on Oct. 19. 

Per ESPN, the probe now includes both “video evidence of electronics prohibited by the NCAA to steal signs and a significant paper trail,”. Connor Stallions, the Michigan staffer at the center of the investiation, has been suspended. 

You can find all the latest on the Michgian situation here

How prevalent does Venables beleive sign stealing across college football?

“I’m sure it’s part of it,” he said. “I think people are finding all different kinds of ways to prevent it, and to try to gain a competitive advantage. You see a lot of people huddling, and things like that, sending people in, and getting to the sidelines. I don’t know how prevalent it is or isn’t. 

“With tempo and pace, I think it makes it all really hard. But you see, about every game, in college football, where the signal stealers on offense and defense are all shielded, trying to keep people from the pressbox that might be looking down with binoculars, from getting a leg up.”

With Michigan ranked second nationally and among the front-runners for the College Football Playoff, the latest investigation into Jim Harbaugh’s program will surely hang over the remainder of the college football season.

Rest assured Venables and his staff are plenty aware of the potential for sideline onlookers. 

Kansas admiration

As the sixth-ranked Sooners stare down a Week 9 trip to Kansas (5-2, 2-2 Big 12), Brent Venables opened Tuesday with his thoughts on the Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold and the program transformation he’s pulled off in his three seasons in Lawrence. 

Venables, a native of Salina, Kansas, holds a particular appreciation for football in the Sunflower state and the newfound success Kansas has reached under the former six-time Division III national champion coach.

“Got a lot of respect for what the Kansas program is today, the transformation that’s taken place under coach Leipold and his staff,” Venables said. “What a great job of development.”

Everybody wants to support and follow a winner,” Venables later said. “ I love that there’s pride restored in being a Kansas guy. That was a heated rivalry, like all in-state rivalries, the Sunflower State Showdown. But I like there’s pride and success happening in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s good for the Big 12.”

OU (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) meets the Jayhawks following Kansas’ Week 8 bye Saturday (11 a.m., Fox). 

Running back decisions

As the Sooners’ search for a consistent running back rotation continues, Venables was asked again Tuesday about who decides which rushers start and factor into OU’s backfield plans on Saturdays. 

“Obviously DeMarco (Murray) is the CEO of his position. Ultimately all the responsibility is mine,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a head coach tell me who I can start and who I can’t, as long as everybody’s in good standing. That’s the position coach. That’s why you pay them, to make those decisions. 

“But certainly, you’ve got to get so and so in the game, things of that nature. A lot of it is based on practice. There’s a body of work always.”

Sophomore Gavin Sawchuk made his first career start in Saturday’s 31-29 win over UCF and finished with 63 yards and a score on 10 carries. Marcus Major, nursing an injured shoulder, led the Sooners with 82 yards on 18 carries.

Tawee Walker, who served an “in-house” suspension in Week 8, is expected back at Kansas this weekend. 

“This is a game of doing and we need those guys,” Venables said. “That room, I believe when we’re playing like we’re capable of playing in all phases and all the different areas around them, that should be a position of strength for us.”

Bowen in better shape

Venables wasn’t expecting to see Peyton Bowen on the field Saturday before the freshman safety recorded his first career sack in the fourth quarter against UCf.

Didn’t really think he was gonna get in the game,” Venables said. “He was wearing a boot for the first time on game day — the night before the game. I didn’t know he was gonna get in the game.”

Bowen’s undisclosed injury kept him to five total snaps in the Week 8 win, but he made the most of his opportunity with the sack that forced the Knights’ punt team onto the field with about eight minutes remaining.

Venables expects Bowen to be more involved at Kansas this weekend.

“He’s healthier at this point in time than he was a week ago,” he said. 

Impactful stops (and what can derail them)

Brent Venables believes in the momentum-building power of the goal line stand.

“It just creates belief,” Venables said. “Belief always comes before growth.”

Two weeks after they stuffed Texas at the one yard line, the Sooners were on their way to another goal line stop in the second quarter against UCF. Again defending the final three yards in front of the end zone, OU got stops on first, second and third down before an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on linebacker Jaren Kanak reset the chains.

Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee strolled into the end zone on the next snap. 

“We’ve had our opportunities,” Venables said. “(But) one guy, you know, that isn’t on the same page can affect all of it. I think that was on display.”

Kansas’ Devon Neal

Venables admires a lot of things about this current iteration of Kansas. The program’s lead running back Devon Neal is one of them.

“Devon’s an outstanding player,” he said. “Man, he can house call it at any point in time. He’s one of the guys that, to me, everything kind of goes through them.”

Indeed, the Jayhawks’ junior is dangerous. He’s torn off runs of 75, 43 and 48 yards this fall. He’s the found the end zone six times in seven games. His 7.3 yards per carry ranked second in the Big 12.

All of that spells a potential issue for an OU defense that has allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances to Texas’ Jonathon Brooks and UCF’s RJ Harvey.

“This is a team and he’s a running back that if you don’t (contain them), he’s going to make you pay,” Venables said.

The return of R Mason Thomas

The Sooners pass rusher who stood out to the coaching staff most in August wasn’t Ethan Downs, Rondell Bothroyd, Trace Ford or Adepoju Adebawore.

It was R Mason Thomas, the sophomore who’s played all of 65 snaps so far this fall. 

“He was our best in fall camp until he got banged up with the high sprain,” Venables.

Ankle injuries on both legs hampered the first half of Thomas’ second season in Norman. Cleared to return a few ago, he’s working back into the Sooners’ pass rush rotation and entered to record three pressures and a tackle on 19 snaps against UCF.

In Mason, an OU pass rush seemingly hitting its stride (eight sacks in two games) has added another weapon.

“He’s long. He’s got incredible speed … explosiveness,” Venables said. “He’s super twitchy. Plays with great power naturally. He’s really coming into his own.”

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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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