NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma coach Brent Venables was blunt when asked about last year’s defense.
The Sooners were among the nation’s worst units last season, surrendering 30 points and 461 yards per game.
Venables came to Oklahoma highly regarded after fielding dominant defenses for a decade as defensive coordinator at Clemson, so it was painful for him to watch last season’s defense become the primary reason the Sooners struggled to a 6-7 finish.
“There might’ve been able bodies, but I just look at every position on our defense and nobody was stacked anywhere,” Venables said. “Stacked to me means quality depth, proven ability at a really high level. And we weren’t there on defense at any position.”
Venables often has referred to the “competitive depth” Oklahoma has built since the end of his first season at the helm. He will see if it translates to production when the 20th-ranked Sooners host Arkansas State in their season opener on Saturday to start their final season in the Big 12 before leaving for the Southeastern Conference.
Venables said he still trusts defensive coordinator Ted Roof, but he has decided to be more hands-on with the unit this season.
“I need to be completely involved defensively,” he said. “Not that they need my help, but that’s what I know. That’s how I got to this position. And I think a year ago was certainly involved, but not to the depth that I think that I felt like I needed to be after evaluating all of it.”
Venables has some stabilizers. Defensive end Ethan Downs is a preseason All-Big 12 selection. Linebacker Danny Stutsman led the Big 12 in tackles last season and Billy Bowman started nine games at strong safety last year.
Venables expects improvement.
“I do feel like we’ve helped ourselves with the development of the guys that are on our roster and with some of the portal guys that we have brought on,” he said.
The Sooners will face an Arkansas State offense that has just three starters back from a team that went 3-9 last season. Coach Butch Jones expects this to be a learning experience.
“When you play a quality opponent like Oklahoma, everything you do is magnified,” Jones said. “If you’re not ready to play, if you don’t have a great week of practice, you get exposed.”
Oklahoma added two key transfers at the defensive end. Trace Ford missed the entire 2021 season at Oklahoma State and the final four games of 2022 with injuries, but he has 10.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 32 career games. Rondell Bothroyd had 30 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and six sacks for Wake Forest last season.
Dillon Gabriel was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year last season after passing for 3.168 yards and 25 touchdowns. He has more than 11,000 yards passing in his career. Five-star freshman Jackson Arnold is waiting in the wings. He’s already moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart, and coaches say he’s been impressive in practices.
Former Tennessee and Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout has earned the starting nod for Arkansas State. Last season at Colorado, he played in nine games and passed for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. He came off the bench to throw the game-winning touchdown against California in overtime.
Walk-on Tawee Walker is listed as Oklahoma’s co-No. 1 running back. He had 18 carries for 62 yards last season. The other starter listed is Marcus Major, who ran for 227 yards last season. The top returning rusher from last season, Jovantae Barnes, is listed as co-No. 3 with Gavin Sawchuk. Barnes ran for 519 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Arkansas State sophomore Dominic Zvada was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list for the nation’s best kicker. He was a semifinalist last season when he broke the Sun Belt Conference single-season record for points by a true freshman with 81. He made 30 of 31 extra points and 17 of 18 field goals.