During his opening press conference last week for spring football, Brent Venables mentioned that the players on the team received “12 months of grace” when he took over as head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in December of 2021. The idea was that rather than slashing and burning the roster right away, players would get a year to prove themselves to the new coaching staff. “(We) certainly gave the guys an opportunity to live up to the standards and the expectations of our program,” Venables said when discussing the roster he and his coaching staff inherited.
Based on how playing time was allocated, Venables’ claim holds up. The table below shows the 20 players who got the most snaps on offense in 2022, according to data from PFF.
Thirteen of the top 20 played at OU in 2021. If you were putting together a standard starting 11 in 2022 based on the players who received the most action at their positions, nine would be returnees from the previous year’s squad.
But let’s zero in on the defensive side of the ball.
Similar story to the offense. A total of five new defenders were among the top 20 in snaps – they generally provided depth. Just one newcomer, transfer cornerback C.J. Coldon, would make the starting 11 based on snaps.
None of that would have seemed out of the ordinary a few years ago. In the era of the transfer portal, however, the fact that Venables rolled to such a significant degree with holdovers from the previous coaching regime probably didn’t get enough attention.
The end result in ‘22 was an awkward confluence of coaches trying to build a defense for the long haul with players who previously hadn’t made much of a mark on middling units. We saw what a disaster that became.
So why should we believe Venables when he says he expects OU’s defense will be “on another planet” in 2023 from where it was last year? (For the record, you know that “it can’t get worse” is foolhardy if you’ve been following the Sooners for the last decade or so.)
The best reason for optimism is that it’s not last year. The stream of players heading for the exits in recent months says as much. The end of the grace period has come and gone.
Spin forward nine months from now. The names in top 20 for snaps on D might include:
Seven newcomers on that list isn’t ideal. On the other hand, OU wasn’t adding transfers of the caliber of Dasan McCullough and Rondell Bothroyd a year ago. A five-star freshman like Peyton Bowen wasn’t competing for playing time, either.
Meanwhile, if you look at the players on the list who are returning from last season, some were recruited to the program by the new coaching staff – Jaren Kanak, R Mason Thomas, Jonah Laulu. The others survived an audition last season that many of their teammates from ‘22 did not.
Could this group find room to get worse than last year’s defense? Absolutely. It doesn't lack for holes, especially on the interior up front.
But the situation around the squad has changed, and this unit has enough pieces in place to make a clear jump from last year.