Brent Venables seems to be ceding some responsibility to his new, young defensive coordinator

Brent Venables seems to be ceding some responsibility to his new, young defensive coordinator

OU football history tells us Zac Alley is in the perfect spot for a 30-year-old defensive coordinator.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 3, 2024, 1:30pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 3, 2024, 1:30pm CDT

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

NORMAN — Ted Roof is 60 years old. Zac Alley, who replaced Roof as Brent Venables’ defensive coordinator, is 30. Half as old.

That’s a serious age difference. And the Sooners have noticed.

“He’s a younger guy,” OU linebacker Dasan McCullough said of Alley, “so it just feels more relatable when he’s talking to us. I’m a big fan of him.”

Nose guard Da’Jon Terry tells of Alley cracking jokes. Linebacker Danny Stutsman is struck by Alley’s demeanor; calmer than Venables, not necessarily Roof.

“He really understands and relates to us,” Stutsman said of Alley. “It’s a different balance from Coach Venables, which is really good. 

“When Coach V is yelling at you or chewing you out and not giving you an explanation, Coach Alley will come to you and break it down. He’s always behind the why, and not so much how. It’s really nice in that sense.”

Well, isn’t that interesting? We figured Venables made a change because his defense needed new blood. A fresh voice. A different way of looking at things.

But maybe the change is not from Roof, but from Venables himself.

The OU press corps has yet to be granted interview access to Alley, late of Jacksonville State but a Venables protégé. So, I’m not sure yet how to gauge Alley as a 30-year-old, be it youthful energy or belying-the-years wisdom.

But this much we know. In these parts, no coach is automatically branded as too young. Sooner history doesn’t allow it.

Larry Lacewell was 33 when named defensive coordinator in 1970. Galen Hall was 32 when named offensive coordinator in 1973. Lincoln Riley was 31 when handed the OU offense in 2015. Bud Wilkinson was 30 when he became Jim Tatum’s chief lieutenant in 1946. Gary Gibbs was 29 in 1981, when he took over the OU defense and became perhaps the Sooners’ greatest d-coordinator. Barry Switzer was 29 in 1967 when he succeeded Homer Rice as offensive coordinator.

Oklahoma is a place that over decades has consistently taken a chance on young decision-makers.

Not that Alley will be calling the defense in 2024. It seems almost assured that Venables will retain those honors. But the hiring of such a young lion seems the bridge to Venables letting go of those ropes.

“Just felt like this was the right time for us and continuing to grow as a defense and as a program,” Venables said of hiring Alley. “Get a guy with some fresh ideas and, again, a new voice, a new face as we move into the SEC. I thought this was the right time to do that.”

In many ways, Venables has been his own defensive coordinator. Roof was a well-established veteran who came with Venables from Clemson and figured to be a safety valve. Venables could hand over control to Roof when head-coaching duties called during the week, be it at practice or not.

But maybe Venables is gradually working in Alley. Some players testify that Alley is more involved in leadership this spring practice than Roof.

“Coach V’s still there,” McCullough said. “Coach V still has his say-so in everything, but I would say the biggest difference is Alley’s just taking more charge. He’s actually running a lot of the stuff now.

“I’d say last year, you know, Coach V was a big portion of just our indy (periods) and things of that nature. Now it’s all Coach Alley; he’s leading all our indy. Coach V might come over and stop by and just see how we’re doing, but he’s not the one actually leading the drills, stuff like that. Even when we get to team-separate, Alley’s the one fixing all the adjustments.  Coach V’s giving his insight too, but he’s really letting Alley kind of take his role.”

Quite interesting, I’d say. Alley was a student assistant at Clemson in 2011-14 — don’t knock it; Riley was much the same at Texas Tech — and then a graduate assistant at his alma mater. 

Not until 2019, five short years ago, did Alley break away from the Clemson cocoon. Alley took a job at Charlotte but left after a month to join the Boise State staff. Two years in Boise, one at Louisiana-Monroe, two at Jacksonville State. Now Alley is defensive coordinator at OU, in this historic season launching the Sooners’ SEC era.

“I think I’m comfortable where his football acumen is and how he thinks in relation to how I think,” Venables said. “And again, I know how he grinds. I know how he thinks. We know each other very well. We had great compatibility before Zac got here and we’ll continue to have that moving forward.

“Again, a guy that will show up with his hair on fire. A lot of energy. A really bright guy. Works well with people. No ego whatsoever. He figures things out. He’s a great teammate and he’s tough as all get-out.”

Alley’s youth is a little different than young coaches from the past. Because of the veteran rosters caused by the pandemic and a lenient waiver system, Alley is closer in age to his players than precocious OU coaches of the past. Justin Harrington, for example, is a seventh-year collegian.

“He’s still figuring everything out, but he’s doing a phenomenal job,” Stutsman said of Alley.

It’s easy to hail any new coach. There’s not much advantage to hailing the departed coach. But some of the Alley plaudits have a strikingly familiar refrain. Like this. Simplicity. Alley has made the defensive scheme more accessible to the Sooners.

“We all love Coach Alley,” McCullough said. “He does make it a lot more simple for us … we can talk to him whenever. 

“It would almost be kind of hard to explain to you guys, but making the playbook and making your reads just easier, making you just play fast, think less, basically. Last year, we got stuck up in a lot of guys thinking too much and not being able to play.”

Thinking too much. That was a criticism of both Mike Stoops and Venables, when they ran OU defenses. Both knew so much defense, they wanted to unleash as much of it as possible.

But if Alley helps the Sooners become less mistake prone, then his hire could be prescient.

“Coach Alley, he’s a great mind,” Terry said. “He’s like for real for real … he has a great personality. He stays on us and he makes it simple. The meetings, he has fun in the meetings. He cracks jokes. I didn’t expect him to be cracking jokes but he definitely cracks jokes and stuff. He’s funny and he has a personality.”

More revelation. Venables has a personality, too, but less of it shines through these days than what we remember from his first OU go-around. Chalk it up to the pressures of being head coach.

Those same pressures make it increasingly likely that Venables will have to give up more and more of the defensive responsibilities. Sounds like he’s already given up a little to Alley, a hand-picked 30-year-old coach at a place that doesn’t discriminate against 30-year-old coaches.

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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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