How OU’s inside-out approach to recruiting is turning the in-state scene inside out, too

How OU’s inside-out approach to recruiting is turning the in-state scene inside out, too

Brent Venables is going hard after Oklahoma talent and landing more signees, which could affect Mike Gundy, who has built Oklahoma State with a heavy dose of in-state players.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Dec 19, 2023, 6:00am CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Dec 19, 2023, 6:00am CST

Nick Henderson knew OU’s recruiting strategy had changed because of Andy Bass.

Now, there’s two things you need to know before we go any further: Henderson is an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Millwood High School, and Bass was a senior quarterback at Heritage Hall this past season. 

Henderson doesn’t coach Bass, but the coach saw what a big-time talent the quarterback was when Millwood and Heritage Hall played early in the season.

“When I saw them recruiting him,” Henderson said of the Sooners, “I said, ‘They’re recruiting. They’re doing their research.’ A lot of people say, ‘Well, what position (is Bass) going to play? What do you do with him?’

“The kid runs 10.4 (in the 100), runs a 4.3 40. It’s for us as coaches to figure out.”

OU didn’t just recruit Bass. It is planning to sign him to a national letter of intent Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period. He is one of seven in-state recruits who are expected to sign with OU.

That is a noticeable uptick in OU’s in-state signees. Over the past five years, the Sooners signed no more than three high school recruits from the state in any class.

The change has been instigated by Sooner head coach Brent Venables, who has talked about an inside-out approach to recruiting from early in his tenure. He wants to keep the best players in Oklahoma, a tactic that might have kept high-level recruits like safety Josh Proctor (Ohio State), defensive lineman Chris McClellan (Florida who is now in the portal) and edge rusher Bai Jobe (Michigan State) from going outside the borders.

But it might also have an effect on the other Power Five team inside the borders.

‘We’re not offering guys out of charity’

OU is going full speed ahead on recruiting Oklahoma talent.

Venables would have it no other way.

“I’ve said this to our staff: the best players in the state can play anywhere in the country and they’ve proven that through the years,” he said. 

This year’s recruiting class at OU, ranked in the top 10 nationally, is expected to have 28 signees. That means a quarter of the class consists of players from Oklahoma. 

  • David Stone, a defensive lineman who is from Del City but spent the past year at IMG Academy in Florida.
  • Danny Okoye, edge rusher who was homeschooled and played for Tulsa NOAH.
  • Devon Jordan, cornerback from Tulsa Union.
  • Andy Bass, quarterback from Heritage Hall.
  • Xavier Robinson, running back from Carl Albert.
  • Mykel Patterson-McDonald, safety from Westmoore.
  • Josh Aisosa, offensive lineman from Edmond Santa Fe.

Each of the past two years, OU has signed three high school players from Oklahoma, and the three years before that, the Sooners signed only two. So signing seven in this year’s class is a huge uptick.

And it doesn’t look like a one-year blip. OU has nine commits for its 2025 class, and six of them are in-state recruits: Kevin Sperry, Trynae Washington and Marcus James from Carl Albert, Jaden Nickens from Millwood, Elijah Thomas from Checotah and Alexander Shieldnight from Wagoner.

“We’re not offering guys out of charity,” Venables said. “These are guys that we feel can help us win at a really high level.”

Talk to folks who follow recruiting, and they’ll tell you the crop of talent in the 2024 class in Oklahoma is some of the best the state has had in a while. They’ll also tell you that the talent in 2025 is much deeper. Much, much, much deeper.

This is a good time for OU to go hard after in-state recruits.

Still, high school coaches see a different approach from the Sooners that speaks more to a systemic shift in recruiting philosophy. Millwood head coach Darwin Franklin recalls a conversation he had with Venables, who referenced the 2000 national championship team at OU.

“If you go back and look at that roster when they won that national championship, it was full of Oklahoma guys,” Franklin said of a team that included Rocky Calmus, Bubba Burcham, Frank Romero, Chris Hammons, Seth Littrell and JT Thatcher, Oklahomans all. “So, this is his No. 1. He directly said the No. 1 thing he’s going to do is not let guys get out of his backyard.”

How are Venables and the Sooners doing that?

‘Intentional about being present’

High school coaches in the state say OU coaches have been highly visible since Venables took over two years ago. They have gotten involved in the Oklahoma Football Coaches Association, attending the summer convention and participating in the winter clinics. That sort of thing resonates with the coaches who often have some of the closest bonds with the recruits.

“You are accessible to the high school coaches. You are welcoming and staying in constant communication. There are a lot of ways to do that,” Venables said. “But there’s nothing better than having a body present at the school.”

It’s not just OU assistants who are making visits to high schools around the state. Venables has made trips all around Oklahoma to see recruits, too, something some head coaches around the country won’t do. 

A couple of weeks ago, Venables joined nearly every assistant on his staff at the Class 5A championship game between Carl Albert and Del City. Even though OU had four commits on that Carl Albert team, it was a show of force by the Sooner coaching staff.

That sort of thing resonates.

“You are intentional about being present,” Venables said. “It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to do it.”

Franklin gives Venables and Co. high marks for how they’ve cultivated relationships. Venables. Coordinators. Position coaches. Franklin says the vibe he’s gotten from them is never pretentious, always down to earth.

“These are guys … that understand how to build relationships, how to have conversations, how to have purposeful conversations, not just, ‘Hey, I’m coming here just to say I checked the box,’ and then might not be back,” Franklin said.

So, why does any of this matter? OU coaches are still recruiting nationally, after all. This current class has out-of-state players from Texas, of course, as well as California, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and even England. (Yes, the one across the pond.)

And OU isn’t winning every in-state recruiting battle. Norman North offensive lineman Harrison Utley and Washington tight end Cooper Alexander have OU offers, but both are expected to sign elsewhere Wednesday, Utley with Kansas and Alexander with Iowa State.

But that isn’t going to stop Venables and his staff from going after in-state recruits. 

‘There’s so much depth to their drive’

OU defensive end Ethan Downs, an in-state product himself, senses an appreciation in Venables for Oklahoma talent.

“Because he knows the passion that in-state players have,” Downs said.

Downs believes in-state recruits look at OU the way he looked at Weatherford High School when he was growing up. 

“I’d be in the bleachers watching them come onto the field, and I’d just be like … ‘I can’t wait to be there,’” Downs said. “Same thing. Being in high school, watching all the OU guys or OSU guys on TV, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait. If I get that chance.’ That’s what so many players dream of. 

“Bringing them here to live out their passion and their dream, there’s so much depth to their drive. You don’t have to worry about their commitment when you get in-state guys. You don’t have to worry about them being shady or halfway in.”

That’s not to say out-of-state players can’t be committed. After all, the Sooners have gotten big contributions over the past couple of decades from players who weren’t from Oklahoma. Baker Mayfield. Kyler Murray. Adrian Peterson. Trent Williams. Lane Johnson. Tommie Harris. DeMarco Murray. The list is long.

Still, when you look at recent seasons that OU contended for a national title, there are key contributors who were products of Oklahoma high schools. Players such as Calmus and Littrell, Trent Smith and Teddy Lehman, Sam Bradford and Gerald McCoy come to mind.

Leaning into in-state recruiting is part of Venables’ bigger plan for OU football.

“My vision is being able to bring in great men and people that people who love the Oklahoma Sooners will be proud of,” he said. “These are young men who deserve an opportunity to play at a school that’s represented the excellence the Oklahoma has had for a long time. 

“Nobody understands that better than the young men, the coaches and the players in the state of Oklahoma.”

So as OU kicks up its in-state efforts, it is keeping more Oklahoma recruits at home — but it is also taking some that might have otherwise gone to Oklahoma State. 

Over the past five years, OSU has signed an average of 6.4 in-state recruits a year. The Cowboys signed seven in 2020 and eight in both 2021 and 2022, years that included future standouts Brennan Presley, Collin Oliver and Kendal Daniels.

But this year, OSU only has two commitments from the state: Del City running back Rodney Fields and Stillwater tight end Josh Ford.

That number could go up. Mike Gundy and Co. are expected to sign only 15 players Wednesday, so even with transfer-portal additions, the Cowboys will likely have room to add more high school recruits.

Still, two in-state signees this year after signing so many over the past few years is noticeable.

The Cowboys, by the way, offered scholarships to most of the in-state players expected to sign with the Sooners on Wednesday.

While one season does not make a trend, at least two high school coaches from the state say OU coaches are already gathering information on players in the 2026 and 2027 classes, while OSU coaches have made few inquiries about those younger players. And since one of OSU’s most impactful recruiting tactics during the Gundy era has been getting in early on recruits, it seems as though this might be an in-state foothold the Cowboys are losing to the Sooners.

Henderson, the Millwood assistant, said he sees the Sooners going after all sorts of in-state players, not just the occasional four- and five-star recruits who come through Oklahoma high schools. Players such as Bass are evidence of that. The Heritage Hall quarterback is a three-star recruit who isn’t ranked nationally.

“I’m not in the room,” Henderson said, “but it’s like, ‘OK, we have this Oklahoma kid, and we may have this kid from Texas. This kid from Oklahoma is going to stay here when the going gets tough because he has family, he has supporters.’

“So, I think when you get an Oklahoma kid, you get a kid that you know is going to be committed to Oklahoma.”

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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