NORMAN — A dark room in Manhattan, Kansas, helped mold Brent Venables as a coach.
Venables would spend hours poring over videotape — in the days of VCR tapes — trying to find a weakness to exploit.
One of Venables’ first assignments as a coach was coordinating Kansas State’s punt team.
“So I would always look for opportunities for fakes and things like that in the wee hours of the night,” Venables said. “There’s so much DNA on the videotape if you’re willing to look for it, study it.”
Legendary Wildcats coach Bill Snyder set the tone for Venables’ attention to detail and also helped develop his aggressive approach as a coach.
As OU prepares to face Kansas State on Saturday (7 p.m., Fox), Venables’ aggressive approach has been apparent on special teams — especially in the punt return game.
During Lincoln Riley’s tenure as head coach, the Sooners often opted for a more conservative approach to returns.
Venables is anything but conservative as a coach.
“I created opportunity for myself as a player at Kansas State as a special teams player and earned trust that way,” Venables said. “We were always aggressive going after punts or setting NCAA records in punt returns.
“Special teams is made up of a lot of things, schemes and fundamentals and techniques and putting explosive players in positions to make plays. But at the end of the day, it comes down to having a bad case of the wants. And you want to create that edge and that eagerness in all phases of the game — offense, defense, and special teams. So you can’t be ultra aggressive here and ultra aggressive here but we’re going to be passive here (in special teams).”
Heading into Saturday’s game, the Sooners are No. 20 nationally in punt returns, averaging nearly 16 yards per return.
Of the teams ahead of OU on the list, only two have more returns than the Sooners.
Marvin Mims, with six returns for an average of 19.7 yards, is tied for No. 6 nationally in the category.
Mims had a 41-yard return against Kent State and had a 34-yarder against Nebraska.
The Sooners haven’t returned a punt for a touchdown since Dede Westbrook did it in 2016 against Kansas — a streak of 74 games. In the previous 74 games, OU returned five punt returns for touchdowns.
Mims’ teammates say it’s just a matter of time since that streak ends.
“Any time he gets a chance in space some, I’m standing up,” Sooners receiver Theo Wease said. “I’m on edge because I think he’s going to go all the way. But I’m glad to see him finally be able to get some returns just to show that he has that in his game as well.”
Mims’ 118 punt return yardage through three games has easily eclipsed his — and the Sooners’ — 2021 total of 69 yards.
The Sooners had just 12 punt returns all of last season, calling for fair catches 18 times. They already have eight returns this season.
While there’s certainly been an uptick in aggressiveness, they are also getting more opportunities.
The defense is creating more punt chances, as opponents have punted an average of six times per game this season after punting just 3.6 times per game a season ago.
OU already has called for nine fair catches this season, but much more often than in recent years, they’ve come down on the side of attempting a return.
“We always want to be smart, too,” Venables said. “There’s a time and a place for everything.”
In his third season returning punts for the Sooners, Mims is finally finding his groove there.
“I love punt returning,” Mims said. “It’s fun. It’s kind of lonely back there, but I like it. Just to be able to make a play, it’s great to get the crowd into it. Teammates are excited. I mean, it’s something we haven’t really had here in the past couple of years.”
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This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OU football: Marvin Mims, Sooners turning up heat in punt return game