Brent Venables seems to have a better handle on this 3-0 Oklahoma team than the 3-0 version that went haywire against Big 12 competition last year.
“Really proud of our guys,” he said Tuesday. “This is a group that wants to be pushed and challenged and wants to be held accountable… When we’ve fallen short our guys have handled it the right way…
“They welcome the strain of what the sport brings to you. That gives you belief as a coach in what our guys are doing and the direction we’re going.”
That direction points toward a Big 12 run much improved over last year’s 3-6 conference slide. Are we talking 6-3? 7-2? Big 12 Championship and New Year’s Six contention?
That depends on longer-term player efficiency and health, and staff adaptability and sharpness as things change.
Venables admitted to being more comfortable as a second-year head coach after OU’s season opener. He still comes off as such. That doesn’t mean we can’t offer him a little guidance as he prepares for Saturday at Cincinnati and beyond.
Here are five suggestions as the Sooners make their season’s first turn:
Lean into the air show: Venables is no different than the other 129 FBS coaches seeking a balanced offense. Maybe he gets there, but I’m not yet sold on the staying power of his offensive line.
More obvious is Dillon Gabriel’s emergence with the most productively deep position on the team – wide receiver.
“He looks like he’s having a lot more fun,” Venables noticed Tuesday.
I would, too, if I had FBS’ second-highest quarterback efficiency rating (next to USC’s Caleb Williams) throwing to Andrel Anthony, Drake Stoops, Nic Anderson, Jalil Farooq, Jayden Gibson, Gavin Freeman and Jaquaize Pettaway.
I would, too, if I had an offensive coordinator throwing it all over the stadium like Jeff Lebby had Gabriel doing at Tulsa last week.
“He’s a mastermind at getting people open,” Anthony said of Lebby Monday, “and then believing in us to make the play.”
Some advice for Lebby: Don’t stop believing.
Lebby called his run game “a work in progress” after Saturday’s pass game pyrotechnics.
It might be for a while. So keep the throttle open for Gabriel and those receivers.
More Tawee Walker, less “Jackhammer”: One of the few things I’m sure of when it comes to OU’s unproven rushing attack is there is a toughest runner in the bunch. He’s Walker, who meets tacklers like he has the world to prove wrong, which makes sense for a walk-on.
I don’t know if he can put 100 yards on Cincinnati this weekend. I do believe he can get 2 on third down to move along a scoring drive.
Lebby has fiddled with freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold in a short-yardage Belldozer package. The “Jackhammer” seemed like a fabulous idea against Arkansas State, but felt stale as it hit a wall at Tulsa.
If the Sooners want to spot-play Arnold this season, fine. The rookie has obvious raw ability.
I just don’t think that involves plowing through the line of scrimmage in relief of Gabriel, something Blake Bell made famous in relief of Landry Jones.
Keep Gabriel in the game on third-and-2 and have him hand off to Walker.
Turn ’em loose on D: Venables says he’s more comfortable in his head coaching skin, and more involved in something he’s more familiar with – the defense.
Combine those two realities and you should see OU doing what Venables has consistently done best over time – attacking the quarterback before he can attack the defense.
The Sooners haven’t needed to send the house yet, but those days are coming. Emory Jones, Quinn Ewers, Jalon Daniels and Chandler Morris are coming.
I don’t know that OU is strong enough up front to send four at Big 12 quarterbacks, or sticky enough in the back should those four not get home.
“Inches are everywhere,” defensive end Ethan Downs said of missed pass-rush opportunities post-Tulsa. “If we can get all those down, we’ll have great sack numbers.”
Maybe. But I’d guarantee it if I were Venables. I’d send more than four.
Pump Gabriel and Danny Stutsman for all the awards: Gabriel is suddenly getting Heisman Trophy notice. Understandable for a hot quarterback in a high-caliber, high-profile offense.
Just don’t overlook that Stutsman is to OU’s defense what Gabriel is to the offense. That goes for play – rewind the one-handed interception Stutsman made at Tulsa before running it back for 6 – and influence.
“We feed off his energy,” defensive end Trace Ford said Monday. “Danny is a big part of this team, probably one of the biggest parts of this team.”
He is arguably the biggest. He is conceivably the best individual reason to feel differently about this OU season than last.
And if things go wrong again in the Cotton Bowl… : In no universe does OU lose to Texas again 49-0 Oct. 7. In this one, as things stand right now?
Longhorns by a touchdown.
If it becomes Longhorns by a touchdown, the Sooners should accept it, regroup and move on.
That did not occur for reasons both physical and mental a year ago. The result was a 3-4 record post-Texas and 6-7 at season’s end.
Regardless of what happens Oct. 7, I suggest OU return against UCF Oct. 21 and drop a hammer similar to 51-6 over Texas A&M the game after OU’s 1999 loss to Texas. A result that told a great deal about the transformation ongoing under Bob Stoops.
Venables gleaned a lot about confidence and perseverance that season and his next 12 under Stoops. The Sooners never turned one setback to Texas into multiple others down their Big 12 road.
Venables should embrace that past when he leaves Dallas in a few weeks, and make sure that the hallmarks of Stoops’ transformation translate to his own.