Expectations for Oklahoma’s defensive improvement were sky-high entering last season as Brent Venables, one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators in recent memory, took over as head coach.
However, Venables inherited a roster with limited returning experience and was plagued with one of the worst units of his career.
The Sooners finished 122nd of 131 FBS teams in total defense (461 yards per game), ranked last nationally in first downs allowed (335) and 99th overall in scoring defense (30 points per game), the worst of Venables’ career at OU and Clemson.
But as Venables, and a second-year coaching staff enter spring practices for the second time together, there’s growing confidence the defensive struggles can get fixed in 2023, although it won’t occur overnight.
“It never happens fast enough,” Venables said Monday. “And wherever we are, by the end of next season it’s still not going to be good enough. The best of the best are never satisfied.
“(But) I expect us to be on another planet defensively.”
That optimism stems from the program having continuity for the first time since former head coach Lincoln Riley dashed to USC following the 2021 season, and Venables bringing in a top-five recruiting class paired with a bevy of potential instant-impact transfers.
OU added edge rushers Rondell Bothroyd and Trace Ford and interior linemen Jacob Lacey and Davon Sears to aid a front seven that struggled to create consistent pressure last season.
The Sooners also reinforced their secondary, bringing in Texas Tech transfer Reggie Pearson and six new recruits along with Dasan McCullough, a highly touted transfer from Indiana to likely fill the “CHEETAH” position left by fifth-year senior DaShaun White, who declared for the NFL draft on Jan. 1.
Oklahoma may also receive significant contributions from its No. 4-ranked recruiting class, headlined by five-star defensive early enrollees Peyton Bowen and Adepoju Adebawore.
The transfer additions coupled with nine returning players with starting experience should fill the holes that leaked last season, according to Venables.
"I just feel like foundationally, we set a very clear vision of what the standards are, what the expectations are,” Venables said. “Certainly, we spend a lot of time with developing guys that are returning.
“So the returning experience is an advantage over what we had a year ago. Everybody was new. You know, I really feel like through recruiting we've strengthened our roster positionally, particularly in the secondary.”
Junior linebacker Danny Stutsman, who started all 13 games last season and led the Big 12 with 124 tackles, returns as one of the leaders of OU’s defense, alongside junior safety Billy Bowman, who finished with 61 tackles and three interceptions in 11 games in 2022.
They know their experience during OU’s disappointing 6-7 season will be important in making sure the Sooners efforts result in improved play.
“We have a lot of new guys,” Stutsman said Tuesday. “(Us) older guys can speak on those past games (last season). It scarred us, but that’s how you get better, that’s all growth. We’re gonna improve upon those games… We’re right there, we just gotta keep improving.”
Venables explained the defensive troubles simply.
“The point of attack, we weren’t very good last year,” Venables said. “We got bullied around and beat up too much, whether it was outside on perimeter screens or at the point of attack on a quarterback counter.
“We got knocked off the ball. We got run through. We just played bad, bad defense. If we put it on the field, that means we coached it. We’ve got to get better, coaches and players.”
Venables hopes time, and the emphasis placed on recruiting to Oklahoma’s weaknesses will result in a better product come fall.
“I know we have the right foundation,” he said. “And then I believe in the guys that are in that locker room. I really expect wherever we are today, by the time April 22 gets here we’re going to see improvement.”
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