Beyond culture, three ways Venables can make Sooners better
Has anybody noticed, for all of Brent Venables’ thousand-word answers to press conference questions — and, it’s easy to imagine, the ones he may get in grocery check-out lines, too — among the things we don’t know is how his first Sooner team might look on the filed.
We know what he's done at Clemson and we know what offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby’s done at Ole Miss and Central Florida. What we don’t know is how it will look when the games begin here because, one, it’s hard to know anything before it happens and, two, it’s hardly been addressed.
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From Venables, it’s all culture, culture, culture.
Every question goes back to it and every time Oklahoma’s first-year coach coach seems to find a new way to express the same thing.
At Big 12 media days this past week in Arlington, Texas, Venables sort of admitted as much when asked how he’ll go about supplanting Lincoln Riley’s high-flying offensive culture with his own.
“If you went to last year’s press conference, whenever I did a press conference, or 10 years ago when I did a press conference, wherever I did a press conference, I’m going to really answer that the same way,” he said.
“Do we have to establish some standards at Oklahoma? Our standards as an offensive and defensive staff, me as the head coach? Absolutely. That process took place from the moment I took the job.
“You have to rehearse your beliefs. You have to rehearse what your values are. You have to rehearse …
You get the picture.
Answers like that aside, beyond painting quarterback Dillon Gabriel as the greatest on-field leader the world’s ever seen and providing multiple metaphors illustrating the leap from assistant to head coach — “When you went from being single to being married, when you went from not having any children to having children,” being two of them — he didn’t say a heck of a lot.
Or, more precisely, he said plenty but almost nothing specific a fan might take note of, remember, and then hope to see on Sept. 3, when OU opens the season against UTEP.
So what might Venables’ try that’s beyond platitude, approach and doing things the right way capable of making a real difference when the Sooners take the field this season, a season that, for the first time in a long time, they’ve not been chosen to win the Big 12.
• Trick plays, baby.
From all appearances, such shenanigans cut against Venables’ persona. He’s a control guy, not a fast-and-loose guy, a play-it-straight guy rather than a gambler.
Still, there’s nothing precluding a coach who hangs his hat on culture, on winning Monday through Friday so that Saturday might take care of itself, can’t also take calculated risks, like faking a punt or field goal.
Among the coaches to have helped engineer program turnarounds via trickery is none other than Bob Stoops, who mostly went away from such excitement upon building a dominant program, say, 2003 forward, but who frequently dipped into a bag of tricks his first few Norman seasons.
• Make special teams special.
Gabe Brkic was amazing and, given all the unnecessarily close games OU played under Riley, won games with his foot that would have been otherwise lost. Michael Turk, Marvin Mims and Eric Gray, OU’s return men last season, are all back.
But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about making special teams a weapon.
Riley loved to use the phrase “all three sides of the ball,” as though he saw defense and special teams as intrinsic to success as his pioneering offense. Though he said it, it never showed up on the field.
For that matter, has OU had an electric return man since Jalen Saunders? You may remember Sterling Shepard that way, but the numbers say he wasn’t.
Antonio Perkins brought back eight punts for points between 2002 and ’04 and Brandon Daniels was fantastic with kicks in ’99, yet OU’s claimed nobody like those two in a long time.
No Sooner's brought back a punt since Dede Westbrook against Kansas in 2016, three seasons after Saunders did it at 2013 Bedlam, and no Sooner’s brought a kick back since Joe Mixon against Ohio State in 2016, two seasons after Alex Ross did in the 2014 Texas game.
Could Venables do something about that?
• Don’t throw it to everybody.
Actually, instead, we should probably just call this one “Get Marvin Mims and Drake Stoops the dang ball.”
All Drake Stoops has done since arriving on campus is catch everything thrown to him, yet all its led to is 41 catches over the 36 games in which he’s played.
Though Mims might not be CeeDee Lamb or Ryan Broyles, he’s undoubtedly better than what he’s done over his two Sooner seasons, because Riley, for no good reason, appeared more interested in a dozen guys getting a catch than in getting the ball to his biggest threat, who was clearly Mims.
A committee at running back is fine, and a bunch of receivers can still catch the ball, too. But the best and most dependable among them need to be targeted far, far, far more often.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams both struggled last season. Or maybe their coach had one foot out the door.
Venables continues to bat a thousand when it comes to program, culture and sweating the details. But wouldn’t it be great if, while tending to those things, he could still have some fun, net some free points and get his best players the ball?
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