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




We want to be multiple in defence.

It’s become a standard cliché for almost every new college football coach. In general, this means using different alignments on D. But when freshman Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables says he prefers to be multiple in defense, he means it. The longtime defensive architect at OU and Clemson makes it a point to switch looks non-stop throughout a match, often without changing staff on the field.

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


The annual performance of Venables defense during his stints at OU from 1999-2011 and at Clemson from 2012-2021 has led to analyzes of his defense schedules. One of the best for football junkies came out Throw Deep Publishing Cameron Soran, which has updated its comprehensive overview over time with new wrinkles and developments. The Coordinator Project also published a useful video on the Venables defense earlier this year, with examples from Clemsons 2021 season to illustrate how parts of his approach have evolved.

If you want to put a label on Venables base defense you could call it a 4-2-5 or a 4-3. More often than not, you’re likely to see an amalgamation of four defensive linemen and/or fringe players somewhere around the line of scrimmage. Behind them, Venables usually rolls with two linebackers on the inside and a hybrid linebacker safety playing in space called the Cheetah position. Rounding out the unit are two standard safeties and two cornerbacks.

The shot above, which was pulled from a video by The Coordinator Project, provides a good example of the Venables base alignment. Taken from Clemson’s game versus Wake Forest in 2021, the Demon Deacons are on the attack in 11 staffs with a receding and a tight end. The Tigers counter with four downward linemen in front and two ILBs directly behind them. The Cheetah (No. 22 Trenton Simpson) sets up on the field side of the formation in space, approximately six meters from the line of scrimmage.

On the fronts, what previous Venables and OUs defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wants to do isn’t all that different.

You can see a clear exception in the image above from last year’s OU’s game against Nebraska. In Grinchs #SpeedD, the edge player is lined up at the boundary referred to as the RUSH LB in a two-point stance like an outer linebacker in a traditional 3-4 scheme. Doing this will require you to sacrifice some leverage on the attack point against the offensive tackle in exchange for giving the RUSH more flexibility and freedom of movement.

Frontin in the spring

This year, Red-White Game offered a taste of what the organization’s defensive arrangement will look like in the fall. For the vast majority of snaps, the defense remained on a four-down front.

The image above is from the first game of the Spring Game and covers most of the day in front of the OU’s defensive line. With the attack starting on the correct hash, the defense comes out in 4-2-5 staff. The line is set up in a bottom front, the nose outfit, No. 88 Jordan Kelley, shadows the center to the tight end and the field side of the formation. The defensive tackle, No. 77 Jeffrey Johnson, plays a three technique to the boundary in the gap between the attacking guard and the tackle. Both defensive ends have their hands in the dirt, with No. 14 Reggie Grimes aligned on the boundary and No. 8 Jonah Laulu on the field.

The D occasionally threw out a few three-down looks during the spring game:

In this case, Grimes has moved out of position on the defensive line to play in a two-point stance with internal leverage on the split tight end (No.18 Kaden Helms). Meanwhile, the three remaining linemen have been shifted to a tite front side. Kelley plays a zero technique over the center. Johnson and Laulu both flank Kelley in 4i techniques, so they line up on the inside eye of the offensive tackles.


In terms of who will play where this season, the spring game didn’t offer much rhyme or reason about the taxonomy of the positions on the defensive line. For example, there didn’t seem to be any rules that were easy to decipher based on the running strength of the attacking formations or the field or boundary. For now, it seems best to divide the defending linemen into two camps.

First, there are the tackles that will play on the inside:

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

Expect a significant amount of rotation among this group, albeit not as much as under the previous coaching regime.

Then there are the edge players:

  • Grimes
  • Song
  • Ethan Downs
  • Marcus Stripling
  • Clayton Smith

Likewise, the separation in this group seems minimal, although signs indicate that Smith is a few steps behind the other four.

As for the 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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