The Oklahoma Sooners saw their six-year reign as Big 12 champions come to an end last season, and then watched their head coach leave town followed by a bunch of key players. But that doesn't mean it's all doom and gloom surrounding the program.
Former defensive coordinator and one-time Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables was hired to replace Lincoln Riley. A rookie head coach, Venables wasted little time building a top-notch staff around him and rebuilding the Sooners' roster.
With pretty much every other team in the Big 12 dealing with some degree of change, here are three reasons why Venables could have Oklahoma back in familiar territory – atop the conference – in 2022.
1. Boomin' coaching staff
Venables may be a new head coach but he's made a concerted effort to surround himself with plenty of well-respected, veteran assistants. Jeff Lebby, who has spent the last three seasons as the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at UCF (2019) and Ole Miss (2020-21), will serve in the same capacity for the Sooners. Lebby also spent eight seasons at Baylor (2008-16) in different roles earlier in his coaching career, so he has some knowledge of the Big 12. Ted Roof, who has 35 years of collegiate coaching experience, will serve as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Roof has been a DC for nine other FBS programs during his tenure and also was the head coach at Duke from 2003-07. Last season, he was a defensive assistant at Clemson where he worked with Venables.
Another former Tiger assistant that has made the transition to Norman is Todd Bates, the associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/run defense/defensive tackles. Bates spent the past five seasons with Venables and has built a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the country. Venables also hired Jay Valai, co-defensive coordinator/pass defense/cornerbacks and nickelbacks, away from Alabama.
Venables also made sure to retain some of Riley's staff, including offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. One of the best in his profession, Bedenbaugh has been at Oklahoma since 2013 and has played a huge part in building the Sooners' reputation as one of the top offensive lines in all of college football.
And lastly, Venables brought back a beloved support staff member in Jerry Schmidt, director of sports enhancement and strength and conditioning. The team's strength and conditioning coach for nearly 20 years (1999-2017), Schmidt returns to Norman after a four-year stint as director of athletic performance for Texas A&M. Schmidt's hire was well-received by former OU players and is just another example of the type of well-rounded program Venables is looking to build.
2. Roster reinforcements
Oklahoma has lost several key pieces to last season's team due to transfer, early entry into the NFL draft, and graduation. Lincoln Riley isn't the only former Sooner who headed to USC, as quarterback Caleb Williams, wide receiver Mario Williams, and cornerback Latrell McCutchin all transferred to the Trojans. Spencer Rattler is now at South Carolina with tight end Austin Stogner joining him, and Jadon Haselwood left for Arkansas. That’s on top of linebackers Nik Bonitto and Brian Asamoah and kicker Gabe Brkic all declaring early for the draft.
But Venables and his coaching staff were ready, aggressively working the transfer portal to find replacements. The big get was former UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel, along with defensive linemen Jeffery Johnson (Tulane) and Jonah La'ulu (Hawaii). They also added a pair of offensive linemen, three defensive backs, a linebacker, and a tight end, basically hitting on every position of need.
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The work didn't stop there either. Despite being on the job less than two months, Venables and company managed to land the nation's eighth-ranked recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite. The 21-man class features 15 4-stars, highlighted by top-100 overall recruits cornerback Gentry Williams and running back Gavin Sawchuk. And the cupboard Venables inherited isn't exactly bare either, as Oklahoma boasts a top-10 overall roster, at least according to one measure.
So while a lot of good players are no longer in Norman, there are still plenty remaining and Sooner fans should be encouraged by the effort put forth by Venables and his staff to bolster the roster in hopes of reclaiming the Big 12 title.
3. Good fits on both sides of the ball
Much of the attention with Riley's move to Los Angeles will focus on the impact it will have on Oklahoma's offense moving forward. And that's especially the case when you add the departures of Williams and Rattler to this. However, Lebby has built a solid reputation for his work as an offensive coordinator and Gabriel was one of the most productive quarterbacks during his time at UCF.
What's more, these two worked together in 2019 when Gabriel, then a true freshman, took over as the Knights' starting quarterback after the first game and went on to throw for 3,653 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Their familiarity should only help the Sooners make the transition on offense.
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And on defense, Oklahoma may be ready to emerge as one of the top units in the nation with Venables taking over in addition to the staff he has assembled. Again, the Sooners have lost some key pieces from last season's defense, including a good chunk of their sack production, but there's still plenty to work with including what could be one of the deepest lines in the Big 12. There also are some key returnees in the secondary that could take a big step forward this season and no lack of options at linebacker.
Oklahoma is definitely a work in progress with so many new faces, both on the roster and the coaching staff, but it's not like Venables and company are starting over entirely from scratch either. Yes, Riley is gone and he will be missed along with some others, but there's no reason to expect the Sooners to take too much of a step backward. In fact, it wouldn't be a total shock if Venables did what Riley couldn't in 2021 – win the Big 12.
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