NORMAN — Time will create distance, but football coaches stay connected and families do, too.
Drake Stoops remembers a childhood in Norman where playdates in the Venables household were a piece of growing up. Years later, Brent Venables and his sons Tyler and Jake would keep an eye on Stoops from Clemson as he charted a rise from Norman North stardom to Oklahoma walk-on, then Sooners stalwart.
“Me and my boys, we’d always be watching him,” Venables recalled recently. “If there was something on Twitter, we’d share it with each other. ‘Did you see that?’ He’s just a baller.”
That’s the conclusion Venables drew from afar.
In his first two seasons leading OU, Venables has gotten to coach the kid who used to run around his backyard, watching up close as Stoops transformed into one of the nation’s most reliable pass catchers, emerged as a central leader in the early stages of a rebuild and tied the bow on a singular Sooners career.
In that time, Venables has drawn another, more firm conclusion.
“Oklahoma has been a benefactor of having Drake Stoops in that locker room,” Venables said.
“Drake would be the first to tell you that it’s been amazing to him. But I look at it another way. I think Oklahoma was lucky to have a guy like Drake Stoops be part of this program.”
The family name
Six years after he stepped on campus as a walk-on, Stoops’ OU journey is coming to a close. He’ll play his final game on Owen Field Friday against TCU (11 a.m., FOX).
The 5-foot-10, 189-pound wide receiver has capped his steady climb with the most productive of his six seasons.
Stoops’ 66 receptions rank first in the Big 12 and 28th nationally. He holds a share of the conference’s touchdown lead of nine alongside Texas’ Adonai Mitchell and teammate Nic Anderson. His 755 receiving yards are fourth in the league.
With catches on 80.2% of the passes thrown his way, Stoops has become one of the nation’s most sure-handed receivers, trailing only Louisiana Tech’s Smoke Harris (84.3%) and James Madison’s Elijah Surratt (81.0).
His last chapter with the Sooners has come as a trusted safety valve to Dillon Gabriel and the most certain element in the nation’s fourth-highest-scoring offense. He’ll take part in senior day festivities for a second consecutive year with a resume that includes 59 games played, five All-Big 12 academic honors, two Big 12 titles and 146 career catches that rank 11th in program history.
For one last afternoon Friday, OU fans get to deliver that resounding ““Stooooooooooooops!” after No. 12 makes a catch.
“It’s in the back of my mind,” Stoops said of his final home game. “But I’m really just trying to dial in and be intentional and be present each day and taking these practices with my teammates — just do all I can to get really and go out on the right note.”
Stoops’ story — by virtue of his last name — encompasses more than the ordinary walk-on tale. After a father who won more games than any coach in OU history and an uncle who oversaw the Sooners’ defense from 2012-18, he is the last link to the Stoops family’s direct presence in the program that’s spanned nearly 25 years.
He reaches the end of his OU career having laid his own touch on the family legacy.
“We’ve been around for a while I guess,” he said. “I’m glad I got to live out my dream here and contribute and do my best to uphold the Stoop family name.”
‘I always knew I could play at any level’
What if Stoops, who waited three seasons into his career to go on scholarship, had never joined the Sooners? It’s a prospect he seriously considered as he finished out his record-setting career at Norman North in 2017.
Bob Stoops best explains the non-stop energy that’s fueled his son’s football career through the trips to the doctor’s office. Between Drake and his twin brother Isaac, their father estimates at least a dozen instances were growing up when brotherly competition ended with stitches.
“It was just rough and tumble all the time,” said Stoops, the former Sooners coach who is also a contributor to and investor in Sellout Crowd.
“The doctor always starts off by asking how it happened — you want to make sure the parents aren’t involved. It always started, “Well, my brother and I…’ And that’s the truth. Drake has been full throttle. Full-go no matter what he’s doing. As long as I can remember that’s just how he is.”
At Norman North, former Timberwolves coach Brent Barnes first noticed that drive during a youth camp while Stoops was still in middle school.
Several years later, Stoops was settling in with Norman North’s varsity team ahead of his sophomore year. Under Barnes, summer workouts would finish with 36, 45-yard shuttle runs.
Before he would go on to own the school record books and lead the Timberwolves to a state title game in 2016, Stoops was the newcomer leading the pack in the summer heat.
“He won 36 out of 36 and he ran No. 1 and 36 about the same speed,” Barnes said. “He doesn’t have any ‘save something for later.’ He doesn’t have that in his system.”
Over three high school seasons, Barnes saw Stoops put up elite numbers without the physical measurables high-level programs look for. Stoops held seven scholarship offers out of high school, none from OU.
Western Kentucky, Air Force and Arkansas State were on the scene before Stoops’ senior season. By that December, he also held offers from Ohio, Memphis and Iowa, Bob’s alma mater.
There were natural ties to the Hawkeyes and coach Kirk Ferentz. Kenny Dillingham, the current Arizona State head coach, recruited Stoops hard as Memphis assistant. He thought about playing in his father’s home state of Ohio.
If he wanted a path out of Norman, Stoops had plenty in front of him.
Instead, Stoops landed at OU as a walk-on under Lincoln Riley in the fall of 2018 with at least two firm beliefs: That the Sooners’ offense best suited his style, and that he could someday excel at the college football mountaintop.
“I always knew I could play at any level,” Stoops said. “I’ve proved myself right.”
End of a good thing
Stoops wasn’t quite ready to reminisce on his career this week. A few weeks back, Venables offered a moment for reflection when he recognized Stoops’ climb in front of the team.
“I didn’t want to wait until the funeral to give him flowers,” he said. “…I hope (he’s) planted a few seeds where a guy is like, ‘I wanna be like that.’”
Venables revealed that anecdote in a lengthy answer on Stoops in a recent press conference.
Within the several-minute response, he spoke of the pass catcher who makes “guys miss in a phone booth,” and plays with the kind of grit you’d want to represent your program. Venables noted Stoops’ presence around the facility, always in the building training, watching film and building relationships throughout the program, too.
“He loves all of it,” Venables said. “And he’s exhausting this moment in his life. I love that.”
Bob Stoops played 10 hours from home when he was an all-Big Ten defensive back at Iowa from 1979-82. That his son has played six seasons of college football minutes from his front door hasn’t hurt. But the elder Stoops says he was never concerned over where Drake spent his college career.
“I just wanted him to have that challenge and experience as a young man to be able to be in that arena,” Bob Stoops said. “I’m proud of his work ethic and the way he attacks it all. As much as anything, that’s what his mother and I are most proud of — the toughness that he has to find a way to succeed.”
Presence is one of the characteristics Venables referenced in his praise of Stoops.
It’s part of why the Sooners head coach believes Stoops will succeed on any path he chooses after football — “You’re going to have a line of people from here to Padre Island ready to hire you,” Venables has told him — and part of what is keeping Stoops in the final weeks of his college career.
He has plans to pursue professional football. At some point, he’ll look back on the journey he’s now completing in Norman.
“I think I’ll reflect a little down the road and definitely reminisce,” Stoops said. “It’ll be a melancholy experience. Kind of that ending of a good thing.”
It’s a good ending to a good thing and one of the unique stories in OU football history.