The heat is on OU coach Brent Venables as No. 20 Sooners try to recover from 6-7 season
The Associated Press - August 19, 2023 8:12 am
Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables answers a question during an NCAA college football new conference, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma’s rabid fanbase was overjoyed when Brent Venables was named head coach.
Sooners fans had kept track of the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator for years after he took that same position at Clemson and helped the Tigers win two national titles. So when Lincoln Riley abruptly left for Southern California following the 2021 regular season, Venables was the popular pick to step in.
The honeymoon ended as the Sooners struggled to a 6-7 finish last year, including a 35-32 loss to Florida State in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Expectations are down a bit for Oklahoma in its final season in the Big 12 before heading to the Southeastern Conference. The 20th-ranked Sooners were voted third in the 14-team conference’s preseason poll – just the fourth time in the past 13 years they weren’t picked to win the league.
Venables said the Sooners fell well below expectations last season — they had four three-point losses and lost to Kansas State by eight points — but grew as a team. He believes his first season was about laying groundwork, and he expects much better results this time around.
“We’re still under construction,” he said. “I’ll be honest, for as long as I’m the coach at Oklahoma, we’ll always be under construction and it ain’t ever good enough. And there’s always ways to improve and get better.”
Venables has a strong building block in quarterback Dillon Gabriel. He was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year last season after passing for 3,168 yards and 25 touchdowns. He has more than 11,000 yards passing in his career.
“This is a guy that if he can stay healthy, I’d like to think he’s going to finish as a top 10 passer in the history of college football,” offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. “That’s something that matters. He’s going to have a ton of production.”
Gabriel has some solid targets.
Jalil Farooq is expected to take on a larger role now that Marvin Mims has moved on to the NFL. Farooq is the team’s returning leader with 466 yards and five touchdowns receiving last season.
Drake Stoops is back for his sixth year. The son of former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has 914 career yards receiving.
Gavin Freeman, a sophomore walk-on, was electrifying when he got the chance.
Austin Stogner, a senior tight end who left and played last season at South Carolina, returns. He had 106 receptions at Oklahoma, then hauled in 20 passes for the Gamecocks.
The defense needs to improve significantly. Coordinator Ted Roof said another year in the system and improved depth should help a team that ranked 99th out of 131 schools in scoring defense and 122nd overall.
“I’m kind of hard on the defense, and they deserve that,” Venables said. “We haven’t been very good in a while. But guys are making improvements there. It’s incredibly important.”
Five-star quarterback Jackson Arnold is already turning heads.
“Jackson is anxious and eager,” Venables said. “He’s willing to be led as well, willing to learn and grow. He didn’t come in as a guy that has all the answers. I love that. Humility but ambition too. He’s very ambitious. He’s trying to create an opportunity for himself and a role for himself and be the guy. I love that.”
Defensive end Trace Ford has transferred from rival Oklahoma State. He missed the entire 2021 season and the final four games of 2022 with injuries, but he was dynamic when he played. He has 10.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 32 career games.
He’s happy with his move, despite criticism on social media.
“I like red,” Ford said. “I like the color. I like being here. Love it.”
D.J. Graham, who made a dynamic one-handed interception two years ago against Nebraska as a cornerback, has switched to receiver. He has played in 28 career games with 12 starts as a defensive back.
TOTING THE ROCK
There will be carries available now that Eric Gray is in the NFL. Jovantae Barnes ran for 519 yards as a true freshman last year. Marcus Major ran for 227 yards last season. Gavin Sawchuk ran for 100 yards in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Oklahoma opens at home against Arkansas State on September 2nd. The annual rivalry game against Texas at the Cotton Bowl will be October 7th. The final matchup against Oklahoma State before switching conferences will be a road game on November 4th. Oklahoma does not play defending league champion Kansas State this year.