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2011, twilight of the Brent Venables OU defense

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Back in 2011 it wasn’t commonly understood what it truly meant or required to play great defense in the Big 12. Brent Venables and the Sooner defense had a tarnished legacy as a result.

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

One of the notable takeaways from our own Bill Connelly’s review and updating of previous years’ S&P+ rankings is how much stronger the Big 12 has looked on reflection. The 2011 rankings revealed an absolutely loaded B12 slate in a year that was notable for RG3 winning the Heisman trophy for Baylor and Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State winning the league thanks in no small part to the performance of Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon. It was the first year of round robin play with no title game. Nebraska and Colorado had both just split for the Big 10 and Pac-12 respectively and the overall results of the season in the new-look league were fairly jarring for everyone.

At the time, the emergence of non-OU/Texas powers within the league was shocking. Baylor defeated Oklahoma for the first time in their program’s history in 2011, Texas Tech went on the road to Norman and ended a 39-game home winning streak for the Sooners, and then Bob Stoops’ program took a rare L in a Bedlam game/de-facto Big 12 title game against Oklahoma State.

The big takeaway from this season in Oklahoma was that things needed to change. The defense needed to simplify and Brent Venables clearly needed some help if he was going to allow teams like OSU, Tech, and Baylor to drop 40 points and come out with victories. As it happened, the DC who’d helped Bob Stoops and Brent Venables establish the Sooners’ initial, championship-winning defense back in 2000 was available. Mike Stoops had just been fired from Arizona and he was brought back to Norman to take over while Venables was knocked back down to “co-coordinator.” Venables then unsurprisingly left and was made sole coordinator at Clemson, we’re all well aware of how that’s gone.

What’s fascinating to look back on now is how Oklahoma’s notable defeats and the crowning of their rivals as Big 12 champions obscured a brilliant season of work by Venables and the 2011 Oklahoma defense...the last top 10 unit we’ve seen from the program.

The 2011 defense

The 2011 season on defense for OU was expected to basically be a reload. The 2010 unit ranked 13th in the country and now OU was replacing both starting safeties and star DE Jeremy Beal but bringing back LBs Travis Lewis, Tom Wort, and Tony Jefferson, both starting cornerbacks, and then reloading up front with a collection of explosive edge players like DEs Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis and LB Corey Nelson.

To make the most of their talent on the edge, Brent Venables was experimenting with the 3-4 defense and using slants and stunts to create their normal four-down fronts with movement. The LB corps was the heart of the team. Lewis was a fourth-year starter with three consecutive 100-tackle seasons behind him, Jefferson was a second year starter coming off a freshman All-American season, and Wort was a third-year player in his second year as the starting middle linebacker.

Their 3-4 was devastating at times during the season, particularly when they’d get Ronnell Lewis (13 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and Frank Alexander (19 TFL, 8.5 sacks) as ends with Tony Jefferson (7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Corey Nelson (8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) working on their outside shoulders.

This play they showed an edge pressure with MLB Tom Wort (3.5 sacks on the year) before ultimately bringing the nose tackle and two DE while Corey Nelson joined late as a fourth when he saw the RB staying in to protect. It was hard to know from down to down who was coming and from where.

The Sooners finished tied for eight nationally in total sacks on the year and they had a lot of flexibility in these sets on when and where they brought pressure. Corey Nelson was everywhere all year, regularly dropping underneath to allow the Sooners to play two-deep coverages or else blitzing from every conceivable gap. OU was able to get a lot of penetration into opposing backfields. In the Red River Shootout early in the the year they buried Texas with pressure, picking off two passes, recovering three fumbles, and scoring three times on defense. Venables’ team was eight nationally on the year in turnovers forced with the secondary picking off six passes and the starting LBs adding seven more.

This was a unit that was exploring the upside in playing smaller on defense with versatile hybrids at multiple positions including the sam/nickel LB (5-10, 200 pound Tony Jefferson), the DE/OLB (6-0, 220 pound Corey Nelson), DE/DT (6-4, 255 pound Frank Alexander), and at cover safety (6-0, 176 pound Aaron Colvin). Their ability to bring disguises, a variety of bracket coverages, and multiple pressures would ultimately prove a model for how teams would approach defending the Big 12.

But a few major hiccups prevented the defense from getting much acclaim at the time or from history.

The Texas Tech debacle

Oklahoma went into this home game against Texas Tech expecting to be just fine. Tommy Tuberville was in his second year at the helm of the Red Raiders after Mike Leach had been pushed out and they were struggling. But Neal Brown’s version of the Air Raid still had Tech finishing 15th nationally in offensive S&P+ and OU limped into this game with a few missing pieces that proved important.

One was left cornerback Jamell Fleming, their senior cover corner, and the other was MLB Tom Wort. Fleming was replaced by sophomore Gabe Lynn, who was nickel and safety in subsequent seasons, while they replaced Wort with Corey Nelson. Both of those insertions went disastrously wrong.

The Red Raiders began the game by running the ball and testing Nelson’s command of the run fits in the Sooner defense. Their screens and quick game confused the OLB and they were able to crease the front several times:

Meanwhile, the eventually physical and versatile Lynn was not ready to play the edge in the cover 2 schemes that OU carried into the game.

The Sooners had to adapt and start dropping FS Javon Harris more, which led to the Raiders picking on Gabe Lynn over the top for multiple fades. Finally the Sooners pulled Lynn and bumped Aaron Colvin over to CB, only to see the Raiders start picking on veteran Demontre Hurst on the other side of the field. It was a classic example of an Air Raid team finding a soft spot, mercilessly attacking it, and then jumping all over the attempted corrections.

Generally a defense with injuries doesn’t go into a game starting with a ton of great options in the gameplan. If you can find matchup advantages and beat their initial plan, there’s a good chance that plans B and C were schemes they hoped to avoid and may not have been able to rep as much as usual while getting new players up to speed.

But the world in which spread offenses can easily find and a defense for fielding unready players at just a couple of spots was a new one.

Traveling to New York with a layover in Waco

The Baylor game was one that Oklahoma fans and media stopped using as a cudgel in defending the removal of Venables pretty quickly. At the time it was pretty scandalous, but when Robert Griffin III finished the year by obliterating one of the best Texas defenses of the decade and winning the Heisman trophy it helped make the disaster in Waco more understandable if not quite palatable.

Oklahoma brought a nasty plan for RG3 and the Bears. They were pretty healthy with Lewis and Alexander both playing at DE, all four LBs available, and Jamell Fleming was out there to try and lock up the sideline. Despite playing relatively small with <260 pound DEs and then the all <230 pound LB quartet, they held Baylor to 131 rushing yards at 3.4 ypc, with much of that coming on RG3 scrambles.

What did them in was having a first year, run support safety on the field in Javon Harris who had to try and deal with Baylor’s spread-iso, deep route game. The Bears hunted him throughout the game...

...often using motion to ensure that they could get Tevin Reese or Kendall Wright matched up on him in space. Wright had eight catches for 208 yards and a score, Reese added 84 yards and another TD on four catches. Ultimately the Sooners went down because of heroics by RG3, evading their tired pass-rushers and zipping an absurd game-winning throw.

The clincher, losing Bedlam and the championship trophy

The Sooners were pretty beat up heading into this game. Stalwarts such as Frank Alexander and Tom Wort were fighting injuries going in and got more beat up as the game went on, Ronnell Lewis was out, and the Sooners benched Javon Harris in order to try out some different combinations.

They stuck with the 3-4 but sent in young Joseph Ibiloye to play as the sam linebacker and moved Tony Jefferson back to Harris’ FS position. It was only a marginal upgrade in coverage for OU but they had a plan to try and pressure the Pokes while maintaining bracket coverage on Justin Blackmon. They’d either play a true cover 2 with Fleming jamming him up underneath while Jefferson helped over the top or else play Fleming deep over Blackmon while and Nelson jammed him underneath dropping from his OLB spot.

The ‘Pokes would end up targeting Blackmon 13x on the night, yielding 10 catches for 95 yards at 7.3 yards per target with zero TDs. A solid day’s work and as good as anyone else in the league did against the Biletnikof, but they didn’t have enough left to stop the OSU run game. Lead RBs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith had a combined 29 carries for 270 rushing yards and four TDs.

Oklahoma’s need to carefully keep attention and numbers towards Blackmon made them vulnerable a few times to busts in their run fits against motion:

Between injuries and rotations in the secondary and then Venables’ attempts to give the defense the means to shift around either to stifle opposing strengths or to bring unexpected pressures, Oklahoma proved fairly vulnerable to motion throughout the season. Only so much though, and the greatest issue in this game was the Oklahoma defense coughing up the ball five times and allowing the OSU defense to score once and position the Cowboy offense on the one yard line for another easy TD.

Revelations from Captain Hindsight

The 2011 Oklahoma defense was pretty darn good. Giving up 40 points to Tech, Baylor, and OSU in games where the offense turned the ball over twice, three times, and five times is pretty understandable now. We’ve now been watching Big 12 offenses shred defenses for a full decade and the idea of a “good defense” that has one or two whippings on their resume is old hat.

What stands out from that 2011 unit now is the way that Venables was on the cutting edge in using smaller personnel, safeties with the coverage abilities of cornerbacks, hybrids, disguised coverages/pressures, and having enough in the playbook to allow the defense to bracket an opponent’s best wideout. At the time it was labeled as being “overly complex.”

Mike Stoops simplified the defense the following year, essentially turning Oklahoma into a man coverage team for the next decade. The Sooners got Hurst back and Aaron Colvin moved over to cornerback to replace Fleming, then Stoops would use Lynn and young Julian Wilson to shield safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris from man coverage responsibilities but often leaving the now four-down, two-gapping defense front short-manned.

Things arguably got worse from there with 2015 standing out as the best post-Venables unit. The 2015 defense got there by using a smaller, hybrid OLB in Eric Striker, shifting brackets and pressures around from a versatile 3-4 structure, and playing with a good coverage safety in Steven Parker. Then player development slipped and everything collapsed. Meanwhile Venables has finished in the top 10 most every year at Clemson while winning four ACC championships and two national titles.

Let the record show that the “bad” year that brought about the end of the Brent Venables era at Oklahoma was in fact the last great defense of the Sooner’s football program.