Sep. 2—Brent Venables was tasked with making a lot of changes when he arrived in Norman, particularly after last season,
Despite winning 11 games, Oklahoma's 2021 campaign was disappointing. The Sooners dropped two of their final three games and missed the Big 12 title game for the first time since it was reinstated in 2017.
Venables has emphasized changing the culture since he arrived in Norman, and for good reason. But it's all in the interest of having success on the field, which he knows is the most important thing.
"One of my favorite things about being on a team, being a coach... is it's very result-driven," Venables said prior to the spring game back in April.
To get those results, and change the culture like he wants to, the focus has to begin on the defense.
The Sooners entered last season with lofty expectations defensively, but the unit struggled to produce. The defense surrendered 27.9 points per game last season, which ranked 70th nationally and fifth in the Big 12. The Sooners were fine against the rush, ranking 33rd nationally in yards allowed per game (135.3), but they were one of the worst secondaries in the country, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game (273.3).
That's where the Sooners need improvement the most, and they've now got a head coach who specializes in defense. With Venables as their defensive coordinator, Clemson won two national championships in 2016 and 2018 behind a top-five defense, and the Tigers' defense consistently ranked in the Top 10 during Venables' tenure.
Venables has already brought those high standards to the Sooner defense.
"Coach Venables is the kind of guy that you would love to play for," OU defensive end Reggie Grimes said. "It's a privilege to play for someone who's been held in such high regard defensively, just coach-wise, in football for as long as he has. The fact that he's now my head coach, I love it. and he's a defensive guy, he's a defensive-minded guy, he knows everything that goes on on the defense.
"Again, it's a privilege and an honor, but at the same time, it comes with an expectation that you've got to do your job in this defense."
The defense may not rise to Venables' standard in 2022, though it wouldn't be for a lack of effort.
The personnel looks a little different from last season after several players departed for the NFL. DaShaun White, Woodi Washington and Billy Bowman return as starters from last season, but several positions will be filled with returning players in bigger roles or new faces altogether.
For Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the baseline for the defense this season starts with physicality and effort from his players.
"Absolutely, we're blue-collar," Roof said. "There's no question about that. Again, going back to the buy-in, the work ethic, the commitment, that's been fantastic. I'm really, really proud of our guys for that. Do we have a ways to go? Absolutely. Do we want to be a lot better at the end of the season than we are right now? One hundred percent. But, up to this point, I've been really pleased with the buy-in, the work ethic and the level of commitment that our guys have exhibited."
There will be some differences schematically between Venables/Roof and former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, particularly the addition of the Cheetah position, a hybrid linebacker-safety position.
But the main different might be the defense's energy levels with Venables on the sidelines.
"Guys are a lot more locked in now that he's here," OU cornerback Woodi Washington said.
It all begins Saturday against UTEP.
Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 405-366-3580