Venables has high hopes for 'very hungry' Sooners (2024)

  • Venables has high hopes for 'very hungry' Sooners (1)

    Chris Low, ESPN Senior WriterApr 15, 2024, 08:58 PM ET

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    • College football reporter
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
    • Graduate of the University of Tennessee

NORMAN, Okla. -- Brent Venables, entering his third season as Oklahoma's football coach, isn't one to make predictions.

But he is a big believer when it comes to experience -- both his experience in the coaching profession and his team's experience. He told ESPN on Monday that top to bottom, this has been the most competitive offseason the Sooners have had since his arrival in Norman.

"We've got the most depth of leaders that we've had, and this is the first year we have guys who will be going on their third year in the program," Venables said. "That's a big part of building a stable, strong, consistent environment and building a team."

The Sooners, who are making the move to the SEC this year, improved from 6-7 to 10-3 in the second season under Venables. He knows firsthand what championship teams look like. He was Clemson's defensive coordinator on its 2016 and 2018 national championship teams. And while he isn't suggesting Oklahoma has reached that status, he said he has seen enough of this club to know it's moving in the right direction. The Sooners will wrap up spring practice on Saturday with their annual spring game.

"It goes all the way back to my days with Bill Snyder," said Venables, who played for Snyder at Kansas State and later worked under him with the Wildcats for six seasons. "Having those strong, experienced voices has been a part of every good locker room that I've been around and every winning environment that I've been around. That's a foundational thing, and it would be that way for any type of business."

Two of the biggest wins this offseason for OU were getting back linebacker Danny Stutsman and safety Billy Bowman Jr. for the 2024 campaign after they both contemplated going pro.

Stutsman, who led the Sooners with 16 tackles for loss, initially decided that he was entering the NFL draft before changing his mind. But when he went to sleep that night, he said something just didn't feel right. In particular, he couldn't stomach the thought of leaving Oklahoma without ever having won a championship.

"Before I got here, Oklahoma won six Big 12 championships in a row," said Stutsman, a third-team Associated Press All-American last season. "Coming here, you found out how hard it actually is to do something like that. I want to get Oklahoma back on that path. That's what the standard is. You look around in our indoor facility and all you see are banners. That's motivation every single day for us. These guys that've been here in this program, the guys coming in, we're very hungry. We're malnourished.

"There's not a lot of jewelry in my trophy case right now."

The Sooners started 7-0 last season and beat Texas 34-30 on Oct. 7, but they closed October by falling to Kansas 38-33 and lost a week later to Oklahoma State 27-24 in the last Bedlam Series game for the foreseeable future. They also lost to Arizona in their bowl game.

Venables has preached consistency ever since last season ended, especially on defense.

in 2023, Oklahoma showed improvement on defense from its first season under Venables. The Sooners ranked 48th nationally in scoring defense (23.5 points per game) after ranking 99th in 2022 (30 points per game). However, in two of their three losses in 2023, they allowed 38 points, and they also gave up 45 points in a win over TCU to end the regular season.

"Danny and Billy are back and invested in Oklahoma for all the right reasons, which sets a tone," Venables said. "There's a continuity aspect of it too. But the best teams, best players and best units are consistent. If there's something you're going to be good at, you better be consistent. And that side of the ball [defense], in particular, was everything but consistent."

Expect a new look for Oklahoma on offense, including first-year starting quarterback Jackson Arnold. And with Jeff Lebby moving to Mississippi State as head coach, former North Texas head coach Seth Littrell moves over from analyst to offensive coordinator. What's more, OU's offensive line will be completely rebuilt after losing six linemen from a season ago who made starts.

Arnold played in the Alamo Bowl against Arizona and passed for 361 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions. Now that there's no question he is the starter with Dillon Gabriel transferring to Oregon, Arnold has emerged as more of a leader this spring, perhaps not so much vocally but by the way he has carried himself on the practice field.

"It's like any leader. You don't anoint leadership," Venables said. "Leadership, to me, is action. It's not a title. It's not a position. It's action, and Jackson has been a doer. He's a worker. He's fearless. He gets out in front. He's more and more comfortable in front of the guys, and he's tough on himself, demanding of himself.

"He has broad shoulders and brings out the best in people."

Arnold spent the first part of his childhood in the Atlanta area and was a big University of Georgia fan, so he is pumped to be playing in the SEC. He said he also is excited to see what he says will be a more explosive version of Oklahoma's offense this season.

"We're going to take shots," Arnold said. "We're going to throw the ball around the yard, but Coach Littrell wants to be very dominant in the run game too, which I love because it complements our pass game. We've got some playmakers that can go catch the ball, catch the ball 2 yards from the line of scrimmage and take it to the house."

Venables, whose first Oklahoma team in 2022 lost five of its seven games by seven points or fewer, said he has a better feel for this group of players. He said the roster only changed by about 30% this offseason, whereas it changed by 50% during each of the previous two offseasons.

"There's still a lot of work to do, and that's the offseason, summertime, fall camp and our players' commitment in the summer," Venables said. "This team's got tremendous potential, but this is a game of performance and a game of doing, not a game of talking and potential. We need to have a great offseason, and the level of our commitment will determine what type of team that we're going to have and be able to compete week in and week out in a conference that can be unforgiving."

Venables has high hopes for 'very hungry' Sooners (2024)

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