“We want to be multiple on defense.”
It has become a standard cliche for almost every new college football coach. Generally speaking, it means using a variety of alignments on D. But when first-year Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables says he favors being multiple on defense, he means it. The longtime defensive architect at OU and Clemson makes a point of shifting looks non-stop throughout a game – often without changing the personnel on the field.
Even after OU made a range of additions to its roster earlier this year, Venables is essentially cooking up his version of a multiple defense using the previous coaching staff’s groceries. So what will that look like when the Sooners take the field against UTEP over Labor Day weekend? Let’s explore that question through the lens of the defensive front, which is where most of the shifts in alignment start.
The yearly performances of Venables’ defenses during his stints with OU from 1999-2011 and with Clemson from 2012-2021 have yielded no shortage of analyses of his defensive schemes. One of the best for football junkies came from Throw Deep Publishing’s Cameron Soran, who has updated his comprehensive breakdown over time to include new wrinkles and developments. The Coordinator Project also published a useful video on the Venables defense earlier this year, featuring examples from Clemson’s 2021 season to illustrate how parts of his approach have evolved.
If you want to put a label on Venables’ base defense, you could call it a 4-2-5 or a 4-3. More often than not, you will probably see some amalgamation of four defensive linemen and/or edge players somewhere around the line of scrimmage. Behind them, Venables typically rolls with two inside linebackers and a hybrid linebacker-safety playing in space, dubbed the “Cheetah” position. Rounding out the unit are two standard safeties and two cornerbacks.
The shot above, which was pulled from a video by The Coordinator Project, offers a good example of Venables’ base alignment. Taken from Clemson’s game versus Wake Forest in 2021, the Demon Deacons are lining up on offense in 11 personnel with one running back and one tight end. The Tigers counter with four down linemen up front and two ILBs directly behind them. The Cheetah (No. 22 Trenton Simpson) sets up to the field side of the formation in space about six yards off the line of scrimmage.
In terms of the fronts, what Venables and OU’s previous defensive coordinator Alex Grinch want to do isn’t so different.
You’ll see one clear exception in the image above from OU’s game against Nebraska last year. In Grinch’s #SpeedD, the edge player lined up to the boundary – referred to as the RUSH LB – is in a two-point stance like an outside linebacker in a traditional 3-4 scheme. Doing so means sacrificing some leverage at the point of attack against the offensive tackle in exchange for granting the RUSH more flexibility and freedom of movement.
Frontin’ in the spring
This year’s Red-White Game offered a sneak preview of what OU’s defensive scheme will look like in the fall. The vast majority of snaps found the defense staying in a four-down front.
The image above comes from the first play of the spring game, and it encapsulates most of the day for OU defensive line. With the offense starting off on the right hash, the defense comes out in 4-2-5 personnel. The line sets up in an under front – the nose tackle, No. 88 Jordan Kelley, is shading the center towards the tight end and field side of the formation. The defensive tackle, No. 77 Jeffrey Johnson, is playing a three technique towards the boundary in the gap between the offensive guard and tackle. Both defensive ends have their hands in the dirt, with No. 14 Reggie Grimes aligned to the boundary and No. 8 Jonah Laulu to the field.
The D did throw out a few three-down looks on occasion during the spring game:
In this instance, Grimes has moved out from his position on the defensive line to play in a two-point stance with inside leverage on the split tight end (No. 18 Kaden Helms). Meanwhile, the three remaining linemen have shifted into a Tite front. Kelley is playing a zero technique over the center. Johnson and Laulu are both flanking Kelley in 4i techniques, so they’re lined up to the inside eye of the offensive tackles.
In terms of who will play where this season, the spring game didn’t offer much rhyme or reason about the taxonomy of the positions on the defensive line. For example, there didn’t seem to be any rules that were easy to decipher based on the run strength of the offensive formations or setting to the field or boundary. For now, it seems best to sort the defensive linemen into two camps.
First, there are the tackles who will play on the interior:
- Isaiah Coe
- Josh Ellison
- Kori Roberson
- Jalen Redmond
- Kelvin Gilliam
Expect to see a significant amount of rotation among this group, albeit not as much as took place under the previous coaching regime.
Then there are the edge players:
- Ethan Downs
- Marcus Stripling
- Clayton Smith
Similarly, the separation in this group appears minimal, although signs point to Smith running a few steps behind the other four.
Regarding the incoming freshmen like R. Mason Thomas and Grace Halton, it’s hard to imagine any not getting a redshirt in 2022.