Early signs suggest the Sooner defense might have something more sustainable this time.
NORMAN — It’s easy to watch this Oklahoma defense and think back to last year.
Those Sooners got off to an eye-catching start, too. Some might even recall the College Football Playoff juice surrounding OU after it notched 13 sacks in Brent Venables’ first three games and smothered Nebraska on the road. The same defense went on to give up 37.0 points across its final 10 games and finish 122nd nationally in average yards allowed (461.0).
Even Sooner defenders who weren’t here in 2022 know early season results can be nothing more than a red herring.
“I think we always overemphasize how last year we went 3-0 and then after it kind of went downhill,” said freshman defensive back Peyton Bowen. “So we’ve got to know that.”
The problem in 2023? The 19th-ranked Sooners are putting together another promising start on defense.
The 73-0 win over Arkansas State marked OU’s first shutout of an FBS opponent since 2015. By holding SMU out of the end zone until the fourth quarter Saturday night, the Sooners opened a season without allowing touchdowns through the first seven quarters for the first time since 1999.
Venables and Co. head to Tulsa on Saturday at plus-three on takeaways. They rank eighth nationally in third-down defense. They’ve given up only four runs of 10 yards or more through two games.
Sure, it feels similar to last fall. However, there are early signs to indicate OU might have something more sustainable on its hands in 2023.
“We’re just starting out,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said Monday. “By no means a finished product and we haven’t arrived or any of that stuff. We’re just a work-in-progress that’s going to go out and grind everyday.”
Roof pointed to the sturdiness of the Sooners’ competitive depth as a positive early indicator and it’s a good place to start. The term has only been a tip of the tongues of Venables and his assistants since spring camp for good reason.
In 2022, OU utilized 26.5 individual defenders per game and never played more than 32 on a defense that finished 99th in scoring difference. The contrast was there to see in the opener on Sept. 2 when 42 Sooners appeared on defense against Arkansas State. That number dipped to 26 against SMU, but OU could dig into its depth again Saturday as a 26-point favorite against Tulsa.
A repeat of the 51-48 loss at Texas Tech last November — when OU played 19 defenders across four quarters and overtime — shouldn’t be in the Sooners’ future.
Look to the linebackers for insight into just what that depth could mean.
OU leaned heavily on Danny Stutsman, DaShaun White and David Ugwoegbu last season. The trio finished as the only Sooners to play more than 900 snaps. With Kip Lewis emerging as a standout backup and Dasan McCullough and Justin Harrington forming an energetic duo at the cheetah spot, OU has the depth to spell its top players at the position in ways the 2022 Sooners simply couldn’t.
“It does a lot for you in the fourth quarter and a lot for you as the season moves along,” Roof said. “All those reps are cumulative and they have cumulative effects.”
Missed tackles are another place to look. OU hasn’t had many.
The Sooners missed seven tackles in two games, per Pro Football Focus, including four against SMU. For reference, Oklahoma State leads all Big 12 defenses with 38 missed tackles. OU recorded 33 missed tackles in early 2022 wins over UTEP and Kent State.
“It’s just a mindset of will,” veteran safety Key Lawrence said of the Sooners’ improved tackling. “Like we really want it. We want it and we’re all hungry. I believe it and I see it every day in practice. It’s just a different mindset.”
Experience helps, too. Harrington became the latest the defender to extol the value of another year in Venables’ system following the SMU game and there’s no greater example of that to this point Stutsman.
The junior linebacker was everywhere in Saturday’s 28-11 win while he notched 17 tackles (one shy of a career-high), a sack and a fumble recovery. On Monday, he picked up both the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week and the Walter Camp FBS National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
The conference’s leading tackle in a struggling defense a year ago, Stutsman is now the Sooners’ connective tissue in the middle of it all under Venables and Roof.
“I just trust the system I’m playing in,” he said. “Really starting to understand it. All those extra hours with the coaches is really starting to pay off. It slows down.”
The concept and on-field value of a renewed mindset is intangible. But when it’s said enough by a close cohort like the many on the OU defense who have spoken of a new attitude in 2023, it’s at least worth taking note.
Returning to the perspective of a defensive back who played at Denton Guyer High School while the Sooners floundered last fall might seem odd. Bowen, though, summed up the change as well as any of his veteran teammates.
“It’s a new mindset,” he explained. “Like last week we knew we won against Arkansas State but then Sunday and Monday we were already flipped around. We were ready for SMU. Like we had a new chip on our shoulder and that’s what I love. If we keep that every week we can do big things.”
Should this defense sustain these early showings, the magnitude of what the Sooners can do this fall will only get bigger.