During his 20-plus years as a defensive coordinator, new Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables accrued a reputation as one of football’s most innovative tacticians. If he wasn’t devising new wrinkles of his own, Venables was co-opting ideas schemed up by colleagues in the profession to produce some of the best defenses in college football. In particular, he has a knack for deploying hybrid players in creative ways that throw opponents out of sorts.
In recent seasons at Clemson, Venables made good use of rangy defenders like Isaiah Simmons and Trent Simpson. They offered him the physical build and skill set to excel at everything from rushing the passer to playing the run in space to covering the deep middle of the field. As Venables gradually adjusted his defensive scheme to incorporate cutting-edge tactics that stymied spread offenses, he relied even more heavily on such hybrid safety-linebackers to fit a variety of roles at any given time.
OU probably doesn’t have any players on the roster this season who would slide into that position – dubbed the “Cheetah” – as well as Simmons and Simpson. The Sooners may still find adequate workarounds, though. Let’s take a look back at some of the ways the defensive tactician manipulated his scheme last season via the Cheetah and try to identify any implications for 2022 edition of the Sooners.
If Venables has a standard alignment that we could classify as his base, it would be a conventional 4-3 defense. For instance, Clemson worked out of this set last year in its season opener versus Georgia:
In the image above from the first play of the game, the Bulldogs are giving the Tigers a traditional pro-style look with 11 personnel (one tight end and one running back). The Tigers are playing two high safeties – No. 25 Jalyn Phillips and No. 1 Andrew Mukuba – and two interior linebackers in No. 10 Baylon Spector and No. 47 James Skalski.
In this case, Venables has Simpson (No. 22) playing like a classic SAM linebacker – standing up outside the inline tight end, just off the line of scrimmage. Physically, Simpson (6-3, 225 pounds) fits the role well because he has the size to be a useful run defender.
A major benefit of the Cheetah position is that the defense can adjust to different formations without substituting personnel. Later in the same drive, the Bulldogs keep their 11 personnel in the game while operating out of a spread set. Clemson counters with a 4-2-5 alignment in which Simpson sets up like a nickel over the slot receiver to the field side of the formation:
Ideally, the Cheetah has the athletic tools to make this play-to-play transition from LB to safety looks seamless. It helps that he probably won’t be asked to cover receivers on vertical routes. More likely, the Cheetah in the 4-2-5 is either blitzing or covering the flat, hook and curl zones.
Meanwhile, Venables has even called on the Cheetah to do this:
The image above comes from Clemson’s game against Wake Forest in 2021. The basic structure is 4-2-5 again, but Simpson has rotated before the snap from his shallow zone to patrol center field.
On the next play, Simpson has moved back down into the box to come off the edge on a blitz:
Two plays later, Simpson flexes back to deep middle:
The “3-3-3” alternative
Remember that whole thing about Venables “co-opting ideas?” Lately, he has started trotting out a version of Iowa State’s “3-3-3” defensive scheme. For example, he rolled it out last season when Clemson took on Syracuse.
The Orange have a Bear Raid orientation under coach Dino Babers. Clemson countered thusly:
In the image above, the Orange are using 20 personnel (two backs without a tight end).
Tigers are only playing three down linemen. A third safety (No. 12 Tyler Venables) has replaced a DL in the personnel grouping and is lining up as part of a three-high look. Simpson (circled in blue) again sets to the field, but he does so this time at roughly the same depth as the interior linebackers.
The ability to swap in the extra safety for a defensive lineman opens up opportunities to attack the opposing offense in unique ways. It also takes some heft off the field and dilutes a defense’s organic pass rush. We’ll see this year if Venables uses the Cyclones’ blueprint regularly against spread offenses or as a changeup.
What does this mean for OU?
If Venables wants another Trenton Simpson to stick in the Cheetah position, he won’t find one on the OU roster at the moment. Frankly, you rarely see such a blend of size and athleticism in the wild. Freshman Jaren Kanak may have it, but asking him to take on that role so early in college career sounds like a tall order.
Venables talking about what he looks for in the “Cheetah” spot of his defense.— Ross Lovelace (@Rosslovelace) August 25, 2022
Mentions #Sooners greats like Roy Williams and Tony Jefferson, stresses just an all-around football player. pic.twitter.com/NTp9ZT5HMr
For his part, Venables is emphasizing playing to the strengths of his personnel. If a player can’t cover well, for example, get him help over the top. With that in mind, OU probably has three options.
First, there’s Kanak. Making the leap from a small high school in Kansas to starting at a key position at OU sounds like too much for the highly touted recruit to handle this season. Perhaps Kanak gets more run later in the season, but not right away.
Door number two: The chatter coming out of Norman suggests that the coaching staff is working veteran LB DaShaun White at Cheetah. Although White (6-0, 218 pounds) can’t match his Clemson predecessors at Cheetah as a physical specimen, it does make sense to try him out there.
White isn’t a superstar, but he has proven himself to be solid and dependable. He has seen action in 50 games for OU. He brings a veteran presence to the squad at a time when it seems as though every part of the program is in flux, which would have to feel comforting with so much other change taking place for the Sooners. White can hold up in space against run-heavy teams, and he has shown signs of being a lethal blitzer. As a bonus, Venables could get OU’s best three linebackers out on the field at the same, with David Ugwoegbu and Danny Stutsman playing on the interior and White at Cheetah.
Finally, Venables has mentioned former junior college transfer Justin Harrington is auditioning at Cheetah. Harrington (6-3, 208 pounds) seems like a better match than White from a traits perspective. Namely, he has the length and speed desired for a player operating in space on the edge. He’d have no trouble rotating into a three-high look, either. Most importantly, Venables seems to believe that Harrington is in the right frame of mind to contribute after slogging through a couple lackluster years in the program.
In the end, it’s possible the Sooners could take a situational approach in which they switch personnel groupings to match the opponent. In some cases, it might be best to play White at Cheetah and use Stutsman and Ugwoegbu as the interior LBs; in others, White can play ILB and Harrington can swap in as the Cheetah. Appropriately for the Cheetah position, you don’t have to pick just one.