That newness feeling at Oklahoma with head coach Brent Venables is long gone as the Sooners get ready to begin spring practice Tuesday.
Coming off a 6-7 season, the program’s first losing campaign since 1998, it’s time to get better. Perhaps redemption is too strong of a term, but the Sooners are obviously looking to return to the form that made them one of the most consistent programs in the last 20 years.
If you’re talking Venables, then you’re still talking defense. It’s the one area where everybody involved with the program is looking for vast improvements. From the players to the staff to the administration to the fans, it’s time to see what a real Venables defense looks like.
Last year was about learning what those expectations are and what it to takes to reach that level. Now? Time to go out and do it.
“I just feel like foundationally, we set a very clear vision of what the standards are, what the expectations are,” said Venables in spring introductory press conference Monday. “You know, I really feel like through recruiting we’ve strengthened our roster positionally, particularly in the secondary. That’s probably where I feel like we made the most improvement.”
The Sooners, like every other team, used the portal for help defensively. OU added a bunch of depth and experience at defensive end and defensive tackle. The question that cannot be answered until the fall is whether production will follow with it.
OU began the season just fine, going 3-0 and dominating the non-conference opponents. But nobody needs to be reminded of going 3-6 in Big 12 play and allowing one 40-point game after another.
It can’t happen again. Venables knows that.
“It never happens fast enough,” Venables said. “And wherever we are, by the end of next season, it’s still not going to be good enough. The best of the best are never satisfied. I expect us to be on another planet defensively. I just want to see improvement in all the basics, the fundamentals. Our guys played with good effort last year. We just didn’t play or coach well enough in a lot of areas.”
Injury update; position changes
Strap in, it’s time for the injury report. It’s a pretty extensive list although Venables added none of it is coming as a big surprise. A lot of offseason surgeries to clean up issues with the hopes of guys being ready to roll in August.
Basically, you can break it down in two areas – ACLs and shoulder injuries. Recovering from ACL injuries and not participating in spring are freshman Erik McCarty, running back Emeka Megwa and offensive tackle Jacob Sexton. Venables did say he was pleased with Sexton’s recovery.
Working their way back from shoulder surgeries are defensive tackle Kelvin Gilliam, defensive back Jayden Rowe and linebacker Shane Whitter.
Austin Stogner might be pretty lonely at tight end as Kaden Helms (knee, patella) and Jason Llewelyn (mid-foot) will both miss all of spring.
A couple of transfers are still working their way back. Offensive tackle Walter Rouse will miss after having surgery for his torn labrum in December. Defensive end Trace Ford will be limited, with hopes of being back to full-speed later in spring.
Finally, quarterback General Booty’s dislocated finger is still in the recovery process, but Venables is not worried about Booty missing any significant time.
On the position change front, D.J. Graham is fully made the move from cornerback to wide receiver. And what’s old is new again as former defensive lineman Marcus Hicks makes the move back to defensive line after the last two seasons at offensive tackle.
“He was recruited as a jumbo guy who could go either/or. He really wanted an opportunity to show what he can do on the defensive line,” Venables said. “Hopefully we can keep him healthy and give him a chance. He’s been banged up a lot. Hopefully he can have a healthy spring and strengthen us on the defensive line.”
Littrell, Skalski in the fold
Everybody knows about Emmett Jones taking over as OU’s wide receivers coach, but the Sooners have added a couple of other support staff spots.
Former OU fullback and former North Texas head coach Seth Littrell is returning to OU as an offensive analyst, said Venables, and former star Clemson linebacker James Skalski has joined as a defensive grad assistant.
“Great opportunity for us to get better on staff with former Oklahoma Sooner (Littrell),” Venables said. “But a guy that’s been around the country and he’s been a head football coach and did a fantastic job while he was at North Texas. And one of my favorite players that I didn’t coach per se, but one of my favorite players. A guy I loved having in the locker room when I was here.”
There was a scary incident involving defensive Gentry Williams during a workout session less than two weeks ago. Williams had to be taken to the hospital, but it does appear as though he’s going to be OK sooner than later.
“First of all, just thankful – I won’t speak a whole lot about it – other than Gentry Williams,” Venables said. “There was an episode here, ‘exertional collapse’ is what they’ve termed it. His labs have all checked out. We’re getting the labs again today. He’s got a cardiac clearance meeting tomorrow. We’ll see where that is.
“But I’m really proud of the response by the medical staff. We’re always looking at ways to make sure that our players’ safety and health is first and foremost. I’m just thankful that Gentry appears to have gotten himself out of harm’s way and recovered just fine.”
No room for soft
You don’t see a lot of physicality with running backs during the spring, but Venables doesn’t really have a choice.
With Eric Gray gone, you need to know what you have in second-year guys like Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk and fifth-year back Marcus Major.
Nobody wants an injury, obviously, but it comes with the territory. Venables likes his room, likes the direction of where it’s going, but they’re going to have to bring it this next month.
“You have to practice. Guys gets bumps and bruises. That’s part of the game,” Venables said. “Nobody likes it, but that is a by-product of developing your team. You can’t practice in a soft way and expect to play in a hard, tough, physical way. That’s all going to be part of the journey.”
Facilities are key
It astounded some, but it’s the nature of the game when the OU Board of Regents approved for a $175 million football facility a couple of weeks ago.
It’s needed for a number of reasons, said Venables.
“There is a recruiting aspect to everything,” Venables said. “Some people say ‘Oh the facilities don’t matter’. Says who? This is where they’re gonna live. So you want to create an environment and have something to showcase that’s the best in college football.”
Create that family environment that Venables preaches so often about. Create the type of environment that attracts the best of the best and keeps them at OU, too.
The move to the SEC for the 2024 season no doubt plays some role, but it’s beyond that. This is simply what OU has to have.
“And right now, what we want is the most efficient facility in all of college football,” Venables said.