Brent Venables’ makeover: OU’s defense figures to be better than OU’s offense

Brent Venables’ makeover: OU’s defense figures to be better than OU’s offense

To butcher a famous quote from the late OU president George Lynn Cross, it’s possible new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will be charged with building an OU offense of which the OU defense can be proud.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 27, 2023, 7:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 27, 2023, 7:00pm CST

SAN ANTONIO — Linebacker Danny Stutsman  and safety Billy Bowman decided to not go pro, setting off much revelry in Norman. Defensive linemen Ethan Downs, Da’Jon Terry and Jacob Lacey also all decided to remain Sooners in 2024.

Meanwhile, all-Big 12 quarterback Dillon Gabriel hit the transfer portal and will wear the neon green of Oregon next season. And guard Cayden Green, who figured to be an offensive line cornerstone, is transferring to Missouri.

Nobody should complain. Brent Venables was hired to bring a defensive culture to OU, and danged if he’s not doing it.

It all adds up to a most curious script as the Sooners head into the Southeastern Conference next season. OU will have more defensive chops than offensive acumen. And who saw that coming so quickly?

The transformation could be on display Thursday night in the Alamo Bowl against Arizona. It was not on display during the 2023 season, when the Sooners ranked No. 1 in Big 12 offensive efficiency and No. 4 in defensive efficiency.

But the Sooners are retooling on offense. Veteran linemen Walter Rouse and McKade Mettauer will play against Arizona, but then their eligibility expires. Center Andrew Raym and tackle Tyler Guyton are skipping the game to protect their health for the NFL Draft.

Quarterback Jackson Arnold projects as a future star, but odds are long that he’ll be Gabriel’s caliber in Year 1 as the starter. And while the tailbacks and receivers are solid, no Samaje Perines nor CeeDee Lambs are apparent.

To butcher a famous quote from the late OU president George Lynn Cross, it seems quite possible that new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will be charged with building an OU offense of which the OU defense can be proud.

“I don’t look at it like that,” Venables said. “I want a locker room that everyone, the Sooner Nation, can be proud of.”

But Venables has to be pleased with the defensive development in his two years. It seemed impossible that OU’s defense could catch OU’s offense in performance this quickly, even if part of that is due to offensive slippage. But it is happening.

And the return of so many experienced players — especially stars like Bowman and Stutsman — is a great indicator that Venables is changing the culture. As many as eight or nine starters could return.

“My experience has been, the older you are, the more you’ve played, the better you play,” Venables said. “And guys that are playing that fourth or that fifth or that sixth year, they just play more consistently. Their focus is a little different. They don’t get as distracted.

“These are guys that are coming back and they’re focused on mission, the mission of this program and certainly on the team and then themselves. It’s a very committed group of guys.”

Meanwhile, the OU offense is in transition. New coordinator. New quarterback. Brand new offensive line.

The Alamo Bowl will be a sneak preview for Littrell and Arnold, but the offensive line will be a complete makeover. All five main starters from 2023 will have moved on by the time Temple gets to Owen Field on the last day of August. Venables told us he figured to add four transfer linemen and is halfway to that total.

Not ideal for SEC baptism.

Venables consistently talks about making OU a relational, rather than transactional, program. Consistently says developing players trumps building through transfers.

But even Venables acknowledges the current climate of college football.

“There is a roster fluidity that is a real thing,” Venables said. “So we’ve always got to be prepared. We’ve benefited from the portal more often than not … so I’d be a hypocrite if I said it’s bad.”

Ideally, OU would be facing the Ole Miss/Missouri/Alabama/Louisiana State gauntlet with an ascending defense and the Sooners’ historically elite offense.

But if you have to build one or the other, seems preferable that the defense is primed and the offense needs work. OU’s offense has been an assembly line of precision for darn near a decade. Rebuilding doesn’t have to be painstaking.

And while the Sooners retool the offense, they have a fighting chance with their defense.

“Huge,” Arnold said of having a defense he can count on. “Having experience like that heading to the SEC is obviously big.”

This is strange rebuilding for the Sooners. For at least a decade, OU has been known for prolific offense and porous defense. Heisman Trophy quarterbacks and a defense that helped opponents create the same.

Strange rebuilding in a strange time, with one final game representing the Big 12 to go, a game that figures to be a 2024 preview. The Sooner defense seems more fortified than the Sooner offense.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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