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Oklahoma Football: What’s Different About the Defending Line?

“We want to be on the defensive several times.”

It’s become a standard cliché for almost every new college football coach. In general, this means using a variety of alignments on D. But when first-year Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables says he prefers to be multiple on defense, he means business. The longtime defensive architect of OU and Clemson makes it a point to switch looks constantly during a game — often without changing personnel on the field.

Even after OU made a number of additions to its roster earlier this year, Venables is essentially cooking up its version of a multiple defense using the victuals of the previous coaching staff. So what will that look like when the Sooners take on UTEP over Labor Day weekend? Let’s examine this question through the lens of the defensive front, where most shifts in alignment begin.

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Venables’ annual defense performances during his stints with OU from 1999-2011 and Clemson from 2012-2021 have led to no shortage of analysis of his defense plans. One of the best for football junkies came from Throw Deep Publishing’s Cameron Soran, who has updated his comprehensive breakdown over time to include new folds and developments. The Coordinator Project also released a useful video on the Venables defense earlier this year, using examples from Clemson’s 2021 season to illustrate how parts of his approach have evolved.

If you want to put a label on Venables’ base defense, you can call them 4-2-5 or 4-3. In most cases you will likely see a merging of four defenders and/or fringe players somewhere near the line of scrimmage. Behind them, Venables typically rolls with two inside linebackers and a hybrid linebacker safety set in space called the “cheetah” position. The unit is rounded off by two standard safeties and two cornerbacks.

The above shot, taken from a video by The Coordinator Project, provides a good example of Venables’ base alignment. Dating from Clemson’s 2021 game against Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons compete on 11 teams on offense, with one running back and one tight end. The Tigers counter with four downlinemen up front and two ILBs directly behind. The Cheetah (#22 Trenton Simpson) positions itself to the field side of the formation in space about twenty feet from the line of scrimmage.

In terms of fronts, what Venables and former OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch want to do isn’t that different.

In the picture above you can see a clear exception to OU’s game against Nebraska last year. In Grinch’s #SpeedD, the edge player lined up on the boundary—referred to as RUSH LB—is in a two-point stance like an outside linebacker in a traditional 3-4 scheme. This means sacrificing some leverage at the point of attack against offensive tackle to allow the RUSH more flexibility and freedom of movement.

Frontin’ in spring

This year’s red-white game previewed what OU’s defensive scheme will look like in the fall. The vast majority of snaps found the defense staying in a four-down front.

The image above is from the first game of the spring game and captures most of the day for the OU line of defense. While offense starts with the right hash, defense comes out with 4-2-5 personnel. The line builds up in a lower front — the nose tackle, #88 Jordan Kelley, shadows the center toward the tight end and fieldside of the formation. Defensive tackle, #77 Jeffrey Johnson, plays a three-point technique toward the boundary in the gap between the offensive guard and tackle. Both defensive ends have their hands in the dirt, with No. 14 Reggie Grimes aligned on the border and No. 8 Jonah Laulu on field.

The D occasionally threw in a few three-down looks during spring play:

In this instance, Grimes has moved from his defensive line position to play in a two-point, inside-lever stance onto the split tight end (#18 Kaden Helms). Meanwhile, the three remaining linemen have shifted to a tite front. Kelley plays a null technique over the middle. Johnson and Laulu both flank Kelley with 4i techniques so they are on the inside eye of offensive tackles.

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In terms of who will play where this season, the spring game didn’t offer much sense or sense of the taxonomy of defensive-line positions. For example, there didn’t seem to be any rules that were easy to decipher based on the running strength of the offensive formations or the attitude towards the field or the boundary. For now, it seems best to split defenders into two camps.

First, there are the tackles that will play inside:

  • Kelly
  • Johnson
  • Isaiah Coe
  • Josh Ellison
  • Kori Roberson
  • Jalen Redmond
  • Kelvin Gilliam

Expect significant rotation in this group, although not as much as under the previous coaching regime.

Then there are the fringe players:

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  • Laulu
  • Ethan Downs
  • Marcus Stripling
  • Clayton Smith

Similarly, separation in this group appears to be minimal, although signs suggest Smith is running a few paces behind the other four.

In terms of incoming freshmen like R. Mason Thomas and Grace Halton, it’s hard to imagine Not Get a red shirt in 2022.

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