Hope springs eternal for college football fans at this time of year. Just 12 months ago, the Oklahoma Sooners were looking forward with anticipation to a new era following the arrival of new head coach Brent Venables.
The hope supply took a major hit in the fall, as it became evident that fixes for some of the problems festering below the surface weren’t coming right away. Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm around the OU program this spring has been decidedly more measured. Blind faith in the coaching staff has given way to legitimate questions about what is being done to address some of the holes exposed in 2022.
What’s the plan at Cheetah?
Venables has used a hybrid safety-linebacker – currently dubbed the Cheetah – as a staple of his defense dating back to his time as a coordinator at OU. Former inside linebacker DaShaun White gave a commendable effort at the position last year. But is a player like White the blueprint for the role going forward, or is Venables aiming to fill it with someone who leans more to the safety part of the hybrid?
For example, when Jaren Kanak arrived on campus last spring, he looked like the player on the roster who best fit the Cheetah position. The coaching staff apparently had other ideas for the sophomore, who is a frontrunner for one of the interior LB spots.
Instead, the name that initially came up most often to take over the Cheetah from White is Indiana transfer Dasan McCullough. At 6-5, McCullough’s length would definitely bring a new element to the role. Does he have the flexibility to handle such a wide variety of responsibilities, though?
From a physical standpoint, Justin Harrington (6-3, 215 pounds) seems like another good candidate to play Cheetah. In fact, early word out of spring camp has put the veteran defensive back running with the first team on D. However, we have heard similar buzz about Harrington in the past, and he has yet to develop into a contributor. Proceed with caution.
Is there any hope at tight end?
As of now, the impact of the tight end position at OU in 2023 depends on Austin Stogner returning to form. That sentence speaks volumes about the Sooners TE room.
A leg injury during his sophomore year in 2020 derailed Stogner off his path to becoming OU’s next great TE. A one-year stopover in South Carolina last season couldn’t get him back on track, so he’s hoping one more year with the Sooners can. It has the makings of a classic comeback. Yet, even if Stogner gets back to his old self, no one can expect him to play the significant majority of snaps at TE and stay healthy for an entire season. OU needs to find some depth here.
Unfortunately, although this question needs an answer, we won’t get it this spring. With second-year players Jason Llewellyn and Kaden Helms on the mend, walk-on Texas A&M transfer Blake Smith may see some reps as the second TE. That doesn’t sound like a long-term solution. If anything, it might reinforce to the coaches that OU needs to snag another transfer.
Has the pass rush improved?
When it came to getting after the quarterback last season, OU didn’t pose much of a threat. Even the two most disruptive players from the defensive front, edges Ethan Downs and Reggie Grimes, can’t feel confident about their spots in the rotation at the moment. Assuming neither shifts inside to a three-tech defensive tackle, one will likely fall behind Wake Forest transfer Rondell Bothroyd on the depth chart by the start of the season.
Perhaps the pressure of being chased for playing time is driving Downs and Grimes to excel this spring. And how might they react if it becomes clear to either of them that their roles will be diminished in the fall?
Meanwhile, Venables and Co. made a push to fortify the edges of the defensive front in the offseason, and spring practices give them a chance to tinker with different personnel combinations. Oklahoma State transfer Trace Ford should find a home for third downs, at the very least. McCullough also seems primed for something like spot duty in that role. Chatter about sophomore R Mason Thomas and early enrollee P.J. Adebawore is growing louder, too.
Lastly, the D as a whole would benefit from finding players on the interior who can serve as more than just pluggers. Keep an eye out for ex-DE Jonah Laulu to bring some heat from the middle after moving inside to DT.
Can any of the new receivers make an impact?
The Sooners’ two leading receivers from ‘22, wideout Marvin Mims and TE Brayden Willis, are waiting to hear their names called in the NFL draft. We know about the returnees who will try to fill their shoes, such as Jahlil Farooq and Drake Stoops. OU desperately needs some newcomers or bit players from the past to develop into threats to keep the throwing game humming in the fall.
The most intriguing of the new faces in the WR room this year is Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony. Optimists would argue his lack of numbers from the last two seasons says more about Jim Harbaugh’s run-first offense than Anthony’s ability. Skeptics would note that Anthony’s ability might speak to why he saw so few targets with the Wolverines. Hopefully, new receivers coach Emmett Jones will have a better idea of what the reality is when spring is over.
Some of OU’s little-used receivers will also have a chance to show out as the program awaits the arrivals of some highly touted recruits in the summer. First up is LV Bunkley-Shelton, a redshirt junior who transferred to Norman from Arizona State last year. The failure by LVBS to make a name for himself in ‘22 caught some insiders off guard, and it seems fair to wonder if he may have fallen victim to Venables’ “grace period” for returnees.
Redshirt freshman Nic Anderson also may have a chance to contribute, starting this spring. Anderson’s size (6-4, 209 pounds) could make him lethal at all levels in the passing game. But why didn’t we hear much about him last year?
Who’s shipping out?
A quick reality check: OU looks to be about five scholarships over the limit of 85 at this point. That suggests the offseason exodus from the program will continue during the second transfer cycle, especially if the Sooners intend to make any more acquisitions of their own in the coming weeks.
It seems unfair to speculate about which specific players may leave. However, we can identify some position groups where bottlenecks are forming. For instance, it’s difficult to find a path to the field for all of the 17 scholarship defensive backs now on the team, and keep in mind that two more freshmen are joining the fold this summer. Similarly, OU is carrying 18 scholarship defensive linemen on the team, with two more on the way.
A shrinking number of players who joined the program before Venables’ arrival remain in those two position groups. Expect their ranks to decline again soon.