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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Venables is making OU’s team his own

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OU’s first-year coach is living up to his word by largely relying on the players he inherited over quick transfer fixes.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look at the Oklahoma Soonersstarting lineups on both sides of the ball from their game against the Kansas Jayhawks last week. It really hasn’t changed much from the first game of the season, aside from some shuffling due to injuries.

In head coach Brent Venables’ first year, the Sooners primarily have a homegrown team. Out of the 22 players who started versus KU, only two weren’t on OU’s roster a year ago – offensive lineman McKade Mettauer and quarterback Dillon Gabriel.

Not so long ago when transfer rules in college football were more restrictive, retaining that many holdovers under a new coaching staff might have been common. Now that players essentially get a one-time pass to transfer without penalty, it may not be in the future. Players have even less reason to stick around at a school when a coaching change is made now, and the change also gives newly installed coaches more freedom to overhaul their rosters almost overnight by bringing in an influx of transfers.

Lincoln Riley’s approach at USC offers an example of what new coaches can do under the revised transfer rules to transform a roster immediately. The Trojans welcomed in 26 transfer players after Riley accepted the job as head coach. They also made use of a rule that allows first-year coaches to remove players from their rosters without counting the departures against their teams’ scholarship limits so long as those players are allowed to keep their scholarships as regular students.

All in all, 23 USC players hit the transfer portal between the time Riley was hired in late November and the time the Trojans started spring football in March. In USC’s second game of the season against Stanford, the 22 players in the starting lineup included nine transfers.

Venables took a different path. It’s not like he ignored the transfer portal in attempting to re-stock the OU roster. The Sooners added 12 scholarship transfers combined after he was hired on Dec. 5 – eight before the start of the spring semester and four after it ended.

But there’s no evidence to suggest Venables pushed anyone out of the program once he took over. By the time the spring semester started, OU’s losses from the ‘21 roster included:

  • Seven NFL draft picks;
  • Seven players who graduated;
  • Eight players who transferred out of Norman; and
  • One medical retirement.

Three of OU’s eight transfers – Jadon Haselwood, Spencer Rattler and Austin Stogner – entered the portal before Venables was even hired. Three others – Caleb Williams, Mario Williams and Latrell McCutchin – followed Riley to the Trojans after OU played in the Alamo Bowl. Another, Patrick Fields, took advantage of the graduate transfer rule to move to Stanford for the ‘22 season. (Five players have entered the portal since spring football ended for OU, and another player was forced into medical retirement.)

Venables didn’t overhaul OU’s roster. He adopted the personnel he inherited.

As OU sunk into a three-game losing streak this season, I lost count of the number of OU fans who expressed to me their frustrations that we’re still seeing so many of the same faces on the field from last year. The complaints were particularly acute when it came to the defensive side of the ball. Given OU’s struggles on D in recent seasons, the thinking goes that the veterans have proved they can’t cut it. Ergo, time for some new blood. (And the complaint I hear the most: Why didn’t Venables poach any players from Clemson to come with him to OU?)

There’s no denying many of the problems we’ve witnessed with OU’s defense this year feel like replays from the recent past. But no one can say Venables abandoned the holdover players, either. Rather than replacing them with new recruits and transfers, he and the staff have made a good-faith effort to give them ample opportunities to succeed playing the way the OU coaches want to play now and going forward. In the meantime, newcomers who weren't ready to see the field this year have had a chance to learn and develop.

Frankly, given the way Venables has talked about the culture he wants to foster inside the walls of OU’s program, he really couldn’t operate any other way in year one. It’s not an easy way to do business with a fanbase who doesn’t like waiting around for wins. But if the Sooners ultimately thrive under Venables in the long run, we’ll probably view this season as one spent building a strong foundation for the future.