Oklahoma lost starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel to the transfer portal to begin this week. That news got a lot of attention, deservedly, but was also tempered by OU’s long-anticipated torch-passing to Jackson Arnold.
Now comes a bulletin that linebacker Danny Stutsman is leaving the Sooners for the NFL Draft.
“Everything has its time,” Brent Venables said of the SoonerScoop.com report during an Alamo Bowl press conference Thursday. “Whenever Danny is prepared to let everybody know what his future is gonna look like, out of respect for him I’ll reserve comment for that moment.”
When that moment comes, it should remind us of coaches’ difficulty retaining key players this time of year when portal and NFL Draft declarations are tabulated hourly.
It should remind us of Venables’ difficulty, and why it’s so important that he keep key defensive players in particular.
The Sooners improved from 6-7 to 10-2 this season primarily because their defense improved. Their defense improved because so many players absorbed Venables’ concepts, methods and ideology a year better, Stutsman included.
The week of OU’s victory over Iowa State, someone asked Stutsman about fellow linebacker Jaren Kanak.
“We were talking,” Stutsman said, “and he was like ‘I’m making some Danny Stutsman sophomore year mistakes.’”
Stutsman made a Big 12-leading 125 tackles as a 2022 sophomore, and probably as many mistakes trying to decipher Venables’ codes. The growing pains symbolized his teammates’, and that signaled OU’s defensive collapse through Big 12 play into a 35-32 Cheez-It Bowl loss to Florida State.
Did new blood infused into all three defensive levels help the Sooners progress this season? Sure.
But not as much as old blood pumping harder.
OU’s All-Big 12 first- and second-team defenders were 2022 holdovers: Stutsman at linebacker, Billy Bowman at safety and Ethan Downs at defensive end. And while it was encouraging to see newcomers Rondell Borthroyd (Wake Forest transfer) and Kendel Dolby (JUCO transfer) make honorable mention, it was telling that 2022 holdovers Woodi Washington, Gentry Williams, Kip Lewis and Isaiah Coe did as well.
Time invested in a head coach’s system helps immensely whether the player is on offense or defense.
But when the head coach has a defensive background, and it is defense that requires the most attention in the head coach’s program, defensive players’ time spent in the head coach’s system is absolute.
Venables touched on that when explaining Downs’ development earlier this season, saying: “A year ago, he did a lot of thinking. Paralysis by analysis. He’s beyond that.”
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof touched on that when reviewing Stutsman’s and Kanak’s progress, saying: “Year two in the system, there’s been a lot of growth from a knowing-what-to-do standpoint. That allows you to play with confidence, and confidence allows you to play faster and more physical and more aggressive. Both of those guys have done it.”
Year one in the system, even for older FBS transfers, can be rough. Dasan McCullough and Trace Ford articulated their adjustments to pass coverage and zone blitz intricacies at different points of the season. They played through it and made an impact, but it wasn’t easy.
Here’s how Texas Tech transfer Reggie Pearson, playing his sixth year of college football, put it earlier this season: “This is my first time playing in this scheme like this. I would say it’s extremely busy. And (Venables) has, like, a ton of ideas. His mind races all day.”
This isn’t automatically a bad thing.
“It races in a great way to help us learn more about the defense and different player assignments,” Pearson continued. “Breaking down offenses pretty uniquely is something that I’ve learned while I’ve been here.”
Pearson stuck with it and made an impact. It’s just that task is easier with another year of time on it.
If players are fond of the term “stacking days” to measure progress, coaches should probably adopt “stacking years,” player retention being so beneficial for programs’ stability and success.
So how is Venables doing this month? Stutsman’s looming departure leaves a hole. Key Lawrence, OU’s fifth-leading tackler as a six-game starter at safety this year, is in the portal. So are defensive linemen Kelvin Gilliam and Reggie Grimes, the latter of whom went from starter to spot player this season.
Bothroyd essentially took Grimes’ spot. That symbolizes portal impact across college football these days, and Venables’ productive use of player transience.
He will continue to adjust with the times, something made clear Thursday when he predicted OU would sign “35 to 37” new players this year.
“This is college football. You can’t keep guys forever,” he said. “Sometimes people on the outside look at change as a bad thing. I look at it just as opportunity.”
Some words of warning from Venables himself the week of OU’s season-opener against Arkansas State: “Just because you take a highly recruited guy out of the portal or a highly recruited guy out of high school doesn’t make you better necessarily. What can they do? How can they execute? Do they have the ability to play with aggressiveness and confidence?”
Answers come with time in the system. Differences are made, something articulated by Stutsman earlier this season.
“I think we’re just more comfortable. We’re more experienced,” he said in comparing the current defense to last year’s. “The guys are more familiar with what we’re doing, and that gives more trust to the system.”
No, Venables can’t keep guys forever. But he does need to retain as many important ones as he can, especially on his defense.