OU’s departing veterans laid the foundation for Brent Venables’ turnaround

OU’s departing veterans laid the foundation for Brent Venables’ turnaround

The senior leaders who closed their Sooner careers Thursday never reached championship heights, but they carved a distinct legacy.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Dec 30, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Dec 30, 2023, 12:00pm CST

SAN ANTONIO — McKade Mettauer was watching from California when Oklahoma launched the Brent Venables era with a 2021 Alamo Bowl win over Oregon. 

Mettauer had committed his future to the Sooners two days earlier. After three seasons and 28 starts at Cal, the seasoned offensive guard turned to the transfer portal, and he’d chosen Venables’ first offensive line in Norman as his destination for 2022.

The vision Mettauer thought up that night included all the familiar OU aspirations: Big 12 title game appearances, College Football Playoff appearances and postseason victories.

On Thursday, Mettauer closed his 26-game chapter at OU and a five-year college career having missed out on each of those benchmarks and the hardware they come with.

As the Sooners turn the page on 2023 following a 38-24 loss to Arizona in the Alamo Bowl, Mettauer stands among a group of roughly 15 players departing the program who helped lay the foundation over Venables’ first 24 months in charge. 

Along with younger leaders including Danny Stutsman and Billy Bowman, they fueled OU’s Year 2 turnaround; a group that featured offensive engines Dillon Gabriel and Drake Stoops to Lincoln Riley-era defensive holdovers Isaiah Coe and Jordan Kelley to 2023 newcomers like Walter Rouse and Rondell Bothroyd

They didn’t reach the championship heights of Riley’s era. Yet, by the time the Sooners rolled out of the Alamodome Thursday, this group of veterans had carved their own legacy. 

“I came here thinking that first year we were going to win (titles),” Mettauer said before the Alamo Bowl. “That wasn’t the case.”

“In some ways I’m glad that it wasn’t. I was able to help build up with coach Venables getting here. Not having anything given to us. This year is a product of the struggle that we went through last year.”

‘Buy-in has never been higher’

Wherever the Sooners go from here — with Jackson Arnold, in the life in the SEC — it will have started with them.

Minutes before midnight Thursday, Mettauer stood among his teammates and belted the alma mater one last time. 

Nearby, Rouse, the left tackle who spent his final college season with the Sooners in 2023, took in the scene with tears in his eyes. Defensive lineman Jonah Laulu threw an arm around a teammate’s shoulder as Coe, the third-year defensive tackle, let the emotion pour out of him. 

Minutes later, Venables sat at a podium next to Stoops and doled out one, final piece of praise.

“This is a guy that he’s made every person in the Oklahoma program better,” Venables said. “Man, you’ve enriched all of our lives. We’re thankful for the amazing example that you’ve been. You’ve been an amazing player. But how you do what you do — man, you’re that dude.”

Those are five in the cast of veteran leaders set to head out the door.  Most were there in Orlando a year ago when a 35-32 loss to Florida State sealed OU’s first losing season in 25 years. 

Transfers such as Rouse, Bothroyd, Austin Stogner, etc. became immersed in the 2022 struggle. After this fall’s win over Texas, some even admitted to feeling the wounds of last season 49-0 Red River drubbing themselves. 

“For us, I know what the future looks like,” Venables said after OU closed the Cheez-It Bowl at 6-7 last December. “I have been seeing it in that locker room. The winning will come.”

It came in 2023.

The program’s 10-3 finish marks a four-win improvement. With a Cotton Bowl win over Texas, early CFP contention and a climb as high as No. 5 in the AP Poll, Venables’ second season closes as a qualified success and stabilizer.

The Sooners won games they simply couldn’t a year ago. Venables and Co. made substantive improvements on both sides of the ball and rose nationally in both total offense and defense. OU saw five more players land all-conference honors than a year ago.

“(This) doesn’t take away how amazing these guys are; the type of team that I believe … the season that we had,” Venables said following the bowl defeat. 

The 2023 Sooners can also be measured by how their leaders stuck with Venables’ message. Gabriel returned for his second season at OU as a more comfortable, confident leader. Ditto for Stoops in his sixth and final season with the Sooners. 

Win or lose, Mettauer and Coe in particular became consistent faces in front of mics and cameras. 

In Rouse and Bothroyd, OU had newcomers who brought a dose of maturity in a year in which the Sooners decidedly grew up. 

By the time OU reported to San Antonio last Sunday, a handful of Venables’ most experienced leaders were no longer with the program. 

Gabriel marked OU’s most notable portal entry in December. Tyler Guyton and Andrew Raym represented a pair who opted out of the bowl game in preparation for the NFL Draft.

 That left about a dozen of the departing foundational members of Venables’ first two seasons among the 70 scholarship players the Sooners brought to the Alamo Bowl, including portal bound rusher Tawee Walker, who committed to Wisconsin Friday evening.

“I would first be remiss if I didn’t mention the young men that aren’t playing in the game for different reasons,” Venables said before the bowl game. “I love every single one of those guys and want nothing but the best for them.” 

“(But I) have a great appreciation and respect for the guys in our locker room, as well,” Venables continued. “I think every coach would sit up here and say the same thing, but the buy-in has never been higher. I think the results from the season would say that.” 

So did the opposing coach.

“There’s a saying: those who know know. When you watch their film, you know,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. You know that Coach Venables is going to have a ton of success because of the way his program and his culture clearly is taking notice.”

‘Highly invested’

That the Sooners brought 70 scholarship players to the Alamo Bowl is an indicator of the buy-in Venables and Fisch spoke of. Also telling is who wasn’t with OU for the return trip to San Antonio. 

By Venables’ count, the Sooners began 2023 with 97 players in their first or second year with the program. Stutsman, Bowman, Jalil Farooq and Ethan Downs are the last holdovers from Riley’s final signing class.

Across that period of sweeping change, Venables’ veterans have been the rudder.  

Gabriel jolted the Sooners as much as the program boosted him and he’ll open 2024 as a bonafide Heisman Trophy contender at Oregon. 

Stoops delivered an inspired final act to his singular OU career that upped his NFL Draft stock. Coe returned and became a stalwart up front. Rouse achieved a goal of playing big time college football in 2023.

For Mettauer, who grew up in Texas dreaming of playing at OU, he’s achieved one goal. Next month, he’ll move to Frisco, Texas, for NFL Draft prep.

“Trying to fulfill my dreams,” Mettauer said. “This was one of them playing here. Going to the NFL is the next one.” 

Stutsman, Bowman and Downs lead a cast of returners rooted in Venables’ culture.

“We know the standard,” Downs said. “We know how to uphold it. We know what OU means.”

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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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