Guerin Emig: For all of the talk of OU’s better, deeper roster, we should mark the head coach as the biggest source of optimistic change.
NORMAN — Brent Venables walked into postgame interviews after OU’s 2022 season-opening romp over UTEP and said: “This game was going to be about Oklahoma reestablishing the soul, the spirit and the standards of this program.”
We all gulped down his sentiment, plus Sooner superlatives that day, like a glass of August lemonade.
We felt differently by the end of ‘22.
So here came Venables back in the media room after Saturday’s 73-0 shredding of Arkansas State, praising OU’s attitude and effort and efficiency and playmaking and positioning and concentration — rightfully so if you look at that score again — but still leaving us wondering.
Do we dare buy in again?
Why should this be different?
“Same stuff that we talked about in fall camp stuff, where I felt like we’re better. And today was affirmation in some ways,” Venables said. “The competitive depth. And again, just another year in our system…
“For me there’s a lot that I didn’t know. I spent the first year with a lot of ‘year of the firsts.’ So there’s much more comfort level for me. There’s not the anxiousness about the unknown.
“I’m just kind of thinking through it as you’re asking me. You know, a little more comfortable and trusting everybody to do their job and everybody’s on the same page.”
For all of the preseason talk of a better, deeper roster, perhaps we should mark the head coach as the biggest source of optimistic change. Not just since last season’s 6-7 finish, but compared to last season’s hopeful start.
Venables had a lot yet to learn his first game as a head coach. We just couldn’t see that through the shine of that afternoon against UTEP. We saw it clearer in October and November.
There was even more shine Saturday against Arkansas State.
Dillon Gabriel, good in his OU debut against UTEP, was sensational against ASU. He quarterbacked an offense that shot to 229 first-quarter yards against the Miners. The Sooners rolled up 437 yards in the first half on the Red Wolves.
If OU’s defense was stout against UTEP, limiting the Miners to 28 rushing yards and 13 points, what was that final tally for Arkansas State again?
“Last year, UTEP scored. We pitched a shutout,” OU linebacker Danny Stutsman noticed. “So there’s obviously something changing.”
The players will tell you they’re stronger in numbers. Stutsman noted OU’s “63 new guys.”
They’ll tell you they’re stronger in the locker room.
“It was good to be on 128 as well,” cornerback Gentry Williams said of the Venables-anointed Team 128 from yesteryear, “but right now we feel closer. It’s a brotherhood. Being able to have those relationships, we’re going on year two now, that’s something that really helps.”
Here’s how linebacker Jaran Kanak addressed the mentality shift Saturday: “We’re worried about being Oklahoma this year, not beating Oklahoma.”
“The mindset and physicality as a group, I think, is the biggest difference,” Gabriel said of the 364-day gap between UTEP and Arkansas State.
It’s hard to say that the Sooners looked better at the line of scrimmage Saturday. There is no question they looked deeper there and everywhere else, or 45-0 at halftime wouldn’t have become 73-0.
There is no question they were more efficient, improving on their 3-of-8 third down showing against UTEP to the tune of 11-of-14 against Arkansas State. A team can show us something in situational football like that, regardless of opponent. The Sooners showed us something Saturday.
Since situational football reflects directly on coaching, Venables showed us something. He showed us something that looked a little better than his maiden head coaching voyage against UTEP.
Maybe it’s ultimately because he is better.
“The test of time will really tell all of that,” Venables said of himself and his team, recognizing Team 129’s challenge stiffens beginning next Saturday.
He and the Sooners failed to pass that test a year ago. They seem better equipped now, but let’s wait and see just the same.