Venables talks about OU's turnaround

OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables' talks about the progress of his defense, as well as what young players they'll be watching in bowl practice. Venables' defense finished the season first first in the Big 12 and 17th nationally in both total and scoring defense.

Bob Stoops has always said to evaluate the OU Defense at the end of the year, and not at the beginning. After five games, everybody felt the Sooner D was one of the underachieving bunches in the country and that the defensive coaching staff was failing to do their job.

Now, what does everybody think? The Sooners have the No. 1 defense in the Big 12 and one of top ten units nationally, and they played a big role in OU's win the Big 12 Championship earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

Brent Venables is in charge of Oklahoma's D and he recently went on WWLS Radio with Bob Barry Jr. and I to talk about the second half surge and victory over Nebraska.

BBJ: Congratulations on the turnaround defensively and the Big 12 Championship and BCS bowl berth.

BV: "It is obviously very gratifying and rewarding. As much as anything, we are really happy for our players to reap the rewards for all their hard work throughout the year, especially considering everything they had to endure. As hard as we had to fight to get where we ended up, it was great for those kids who really deserved to taste that success, be champions and again have a strong legacy.

"I couldn't be more proud of that group of seniors and the leadership that they provided. The last two years have been tough on them, and to see them go out again as champions is again very gratifying."

BBJ: You are up for the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football. You are always modest in your assessment of your own ability, but please talk about you and your staff, because you guys obviously made some moves and tough decisions that paid off this season?

BV: "It was a little bit of everything. Obviously, you go through spring football and fall camp and you think you have a good beat on personnel — who can do what and who your playmakers are and that nature. Unfortunately, that is not reality. You get through your first couple of games where there is live ammunition, if you will, and you find out who can do what, what their strengths are and what you need to improve upon. Coach Stoops preached this and certainly I did during the first three and four weeks through some of the frustrations that we were going through that we weren't that far off.

"I can start at the UAB game and, although there was a lot of poor play, we forced eight three-and-outs. You are playing really good defense against anybody when you can force eight three-and-outs. Unfortunately, when we weren't playing well it wasn't just bad, it was very poor. For example, we would give up a 35-yard fade route that changes field position and gives a team a chance to be in the game. In that particular game, we gave up three 30-yard passes. We also had some sloppy tackling.

"We really felt, because of the effort and obviously the ability, that again we weren't that far off. We felt we harassed the Washington quarterback and ran him all over the place, but we didn't get sacks and a lot of minus yardage plays. But we really played pretty well outside of early a 35- to 40-yard fade route on one of their third-and-longs. Then, of course, the first play of the game when they gash us for 50. Again, that is poor defense. No question.

"When it was bad it was really bad and when it was good it was really good. I think coach Stoops did a great job of keeping things in perspective for us as a staff, never panicking and never pointing fingers. He pointed out the obvious to ourselves and to the players. He just continued to demand that we be good at fundamentals and better at fundamentals."

"We also demanded that our guys be more disciplined. We felt we had guys who were playing really hard, but who weren't playing very smart. An example is trying to do somebody else's job, or coming off the field and saying, ‘Oh, I thought they gave it off on the dive,' or 'I thought the quarterback was going to pull.' Well, he didn't and they gave it and gashed us for 20. So we just again tried to get guys to play with better discipline and play with better technique. We didn't have any magical calls.

"I do remember the come-to-Jesus meeting at halftime of the Washington game where I told the guys that we are not going to change anything that we are doing. We are not going to change one call and that we are going to call the same calls we called in the first half. That they were going to have to get better at executing. There are no magical calls. We had maturity and senior leadership who understood and had been around enough to know our defense, and know that when it is executed properly how well it works."

"So there wasn't a whole bunch of transformation within our structure whatsoever. We did massage some of the personnel. It has been well-documented and some of those moves really did help solidify some of the secondary moves that we made, and they were really big. I really thought that Chris (Wilson) and Jackie (Shipp) did a fabulous job at getting some of our players improved at some of the base techniques, assignments and fundamentals.

"We just improved, obviously, from the beginning of the year to where we are at now. That is what we shoot for every day, and that is pretty typical of our defense. That doesn't mean that you always have to start poorly, because we are capable of playing much better early in the year. At the same time, as a coach that is what you work hard for every dar. You want your guys to get better every day. To see the drastic improvements is obviously icing on the cake."

JH: You don't have a lot of seniors on this team and you have to be very proud for them to go out in such fine fashion?

BV: "I am really happy for those guys because people really and truly don't have a grasp of how hard these guys have worked. It is not just about Saturday, it is much more than that. It is also the body of their work, the commitment that they have made and the investment that we see as coaches when they come in on their own for a couple of extra hours every day throughout the course of a week, and the effort that we see at practice. People also don't truly grasp the pressure that these kids are under.

"That is why they come to Oklahoma, because of the standards are so high, but at the same time when they feel like they are not living up to that standard and that is hard on them. That is the standard of past players. An example is Rufus at linebacker. He hears it from me and I try to have a delicate balance of not shoving it in his face. But also recognizing the leadership qualities of the great players that we have had, how hard they have worked and the key things that they say. It is the value that they contribute to the team that makes a difference between playing great team defense and great team football or coming up short."

"Last year was short and obviously we got better and we finished the season strong. However, there was a lot of pressure on these seniors, self-imposed pressure as much as anything. They sense the pressure from media and fans of not living up to our own expectations, but to their own expectations as well. To see them talk about being a champion in that locker room, you really felt great for them. A lot of them had an opportunity to sit back and think about their legacy of being champions and meeting the standard set here was relieving and rewarding for them.

"You just really sensed something that had built up inside of these guys and it makes you very proud for them. It is something that nobody will ever be able to take away from them."

JH: At the beginning of bowl practice, you work hard and give special attention to your young players or players who have been back-ups throughout the year. S you give us an rundown of some of the young players you are going to look forward to working with here on the defensive side of the ball?

BV: "I think that time will be really critical with a lot of our young safeties. We are still trying to develop that position. We played really strong, but I think it is obvious that we still need to develop that strong, physical presence at the safety position. So some of the young players like Keenan Clayton and Quenton Carter, first and foremost, come to mind.

"We also have some good young corners in Dominique Franks and Jonathan Nelson. I also think you can include Brian Jackson there, and I think all of them have extremely bright futures.

"At linebacker we have Jeremy Beal and Brandon Crow, as well as Ryan Reynolds and Curtis Lofton. I also want to include Lewis Baker and Demarrio Pleasant. I know that some of those guys aren't necessarily young, yet they haven't started many or if at all in any games. So it is going to be extremely critical to replace a couple of guys (Rufus and Latimer) who have started for a few years and who have been really good players for us."

"On the defensive line, it critical as anything what we get accomplished in the next ten days. Gerald McCoy is going to play a huge part in what we do next year. The reps that he has received throughout the year with the varsity at practice, coupled with what he is going to get now, will be extremely important towards his growth. The same goes for Adrian Taylor and Billy Blackard.

"We will welcome back Auston English, who we redshirted this year. We were able to do so because of the depth that we had at defensive end. It will be extremely critical for John Williams and Tim Johnson, another transfer from last year. He didn't play this year, but has a chance to be in the rotation next year. We will look at Jeremy Beal as a defensive end as well, because of some of the playmakers that we feel that we have at linebacker. He has done a fantastic job, don't get me wrong at middle linebacker and we really feel he has a bright future there, but he was also, coming out of high school, a very explosive defensive end. He played probably more at defensive end than he did at linebacker. We are excited about him in that capacity as well."

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