We were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the folks over at SBNation's Oklahoma blog, Crimson and Cream Machine, and discuss the defensive coordinator's move from Oklahoma to Clemson. They have provided us with a good bit of info on Brent "The Neck Vein" Venables and what we should expect out of him based on the past 13 years in Norman. They asked us a few questions as well, so be sure to get over there and check out our answers to their questions. Also, these guys are pretty friendly and cooperative folks so feel free to ask them items you may have questions about regarding Venables and all things Oklahoma.
Shakin' the Southland Question: Coach Venables openly stated that his decision to leave OU had nothing to do with the return of Mike Stoops. First off, do you believe this? Also, had Venables stayed, how do you think the defensive responsibilities would have been allocated between the two (i.e., would BV have taken a backseat to Stoops as most suspect)?
Crimson and Cream Machine Answer: I think there is more truth to his statement than some people would give him credit for, but at the same time it would be pretty naive to think Mike Stoops' return didn't play some role in things. I'm of the opinion that if Mike Stoops isn't brought back that Brent Venables is still the DC at Oklahoma so yeah, I think it played a part. But with some of the details that have since come out, it certainly seems as if Venables was just ready for a new challenge and I think any rational OU fan can respect that decision.
If Bob Stoops had been able to convince Venables to stay, given how seriously he was considering Clemson, I believe he would have made Venables and Mike Stoops "equals" in terms of play calling. Stoops is loyal, probably to a fault, and I think he would have been willing to give both guys equal responsibilities to keep Venables on staff. Obviously no one can say whether or not it would have worked, but everyone involved has said they were eager to give it another go.
STS Question: We've begun reviewing Venables' body of work at OU and are impressed with his recruiting prowess. How big of an impact will his loss have on Oklahoma and what do you think Clemson gains from a recruiting standpoint by bringing BV onboard?
C&CM Answer: Not to dodge the question, but until Oklahoma actually hires a replacement it will be difficult to determine just how significant a loss Venables' recruiting prowess will be to replace. That said, while as a DC he wasn't out on the road as much as some position coaches, but still routinely took the lead on defensive recruits and has a well-earned relationship of relating well to recruits. He is a tireless recruiter and you routinely hear recruits talk about him as a "down to earth coach" and a guy they can relate to. He's not one to pressure kids into a commitment either which is something I've always appreciated just as a fan. I can say that most OU fans, myself included, feel like Oklahoma's chances of finding a replacement for Venables as both a position coach and perhaps more importantly a recruiter are not good. And I'm not sure how you could take that as anything other than a massive compliment to Venables.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Clemson and their staff is limited but in following recruiting in general it does not appear as if Clemson is hurting in that area. I'd think recruits would find Venables enthusiasm just as infectious as they appear to do with Dabo Swinney. If I were a Clemson fan, I'd be ecstatic thinking about those two guys in the living room of potential recruits.
STS Comment: Steele was also an excellent recruiter before coming here and Swinney tends to keep the coordinators off the road to work on game planning. Venables will definitely be an asset on the recruiting trail but to what extent is still a question. Steele was a primary recruiter in the PeeDee region and Southwest Florida
STS Question: OU's defensive performances dropped off following Stoops' departure for Arizona. Do you think this drop off was due to Stoops' departure, improvement in Big 12 offenses, a combination of OU's fastbreak style & opponents' offensive improvement, or some combination of these items?
C&CM Answer: I definitely think it was a combination of all the factors you very accurately pointed out. Brent Venables isn't afraid to get in a player's face, in a good way of course, but at the end of the day he's still very much a player's coach and I think the defense lost some of their bite when Mike Stoops left. Couple that with the dynamic spread offenses that exploded onto the scene in the Big 12 and OU's employment of the no-huddle, it put the defense on the field a lot more than it had been in the past. One of the issues that caused for Venables' defense is his habit of really only utilizing substitute players along the defensive line. Maybe things will be different at Clemson, though it's not like he didn't have depth at a school like Oklahoma, but Venables rarely used backup LBs and DBs. So when you keep your starters out there for that many plays, it's more a matter of when not if they are going to get beat.
STS Comment: This looks a lot like what we saw out of Steele, only Oklahoma had more/better recruited depth than Clemson. If Venables refused to substitute at OU then we are very likely to see more of the same here.
STS Question: Sentiment out of many Oklahoma fans was that they wanted Mike Stoops back and really gave no thought as to whether BV would stay if he came back (with some outright wanting a replacement prior to Willie Martinez's departure). Are these thoughts accurate for most of the Sooner Nation and are these your thoughts on this topic?
C&CM Answer: This is an excellent point. I think the general sentiment amongst OU fans was the Venables wouldn't ever leave unless it was for a head coaching position. Therefore, when the speculation started about Mike Stoops' return I think you're exactly right in that many OU fans obviously took for granted that Venables wasn't going anywhere. Clearly we could not have been more wrong. From what we've heard, even those OU fans that had their issues with Venables were not happy about him leaving. I think it's fair to say that had they known Mike Stoops' return would lead to this they very likely would not have been pushing quite as hard for Mike to come back.
As for my own thoughts on the situation, I wasn't really a huge fan of Mike coming back in the first place. Not to get too deep into things I know you wouldn't care about, but I think this Oklahoma defense would be well served with some schematic changes and that was never going to happen if Mike came back. Once it became inevitable, I was able to get on board with the idea of Mike and Venables because of their history and thought together they might be able to challenge Bob on some things. Not to say Mike Stoops won't be a great DC for Oklahoma, but right now I feel like the Sooners would have been better off (both on and off the field) had they been able to keep both.
STS Question: What should we expect out of Venables' defense in terms of game preparation, in-game results, and fundamental soundness (i.e., proper angles, proper tackling technique, shedding blocks, etc...)?
C&CM Answer: Bob Stoops allows minimal, at best, access to the OU program, but one of the rare cool things they do is during spring/summer practices they'll put up some brief video clips of the coaches and players in action. Admittedly, these 1-2 minute clips can give you the whole picture of a player or coach, but to this untrained eye Venables always struck me as an outstanding technical coach. He's very detail oriented and isn't afraid to pause practice to make a guy go through a drill as many times as necessary for him to understand what he's asking him to do. So I definitely think he's teaching his players all the proper techniques to use in the game, but at the same time the OU defense has had issues with guys wrapping up in years past. Now whether that's on Venables or the individual players just not doing what they're asked is up to your own interpretation I suppose. I do know however if he sees a guy doing something he's not supposed to, expect to see him 10-15 yards out onto the field ready and waiting for said player to come off the field. He's earned the nickname "Neck Vein" among some OU fans and I think the name itself is pretty self-explanatory. He's a very intense guy and I know for a fact that his players really respond to his passion.
STS Comment: Issues wrapping up? Now where have I heard that before...
STS Question: Clemson clearly had issues last season against spread offenses and offenses that featured mobile quarterbacks. Obviously these are things that the Sooners faced week in and week out in the Big 12. What should we expect out of his defenses when facing such attacks and are there any glaring issues that you saw when OU played such teams?
C&CM Answer: Oklahoma's defense under Bob Stoops and thus Brent Venables has a long history of struggling against mobile QBs, which is probably not what you wanted to hear. Many times against this type of QB, Venables strategy seemed to be a goal of containment and voluntary sacrificing the pass rush to avoid giving up rush lanes for the QB to take off. It's not a strategy I've ever agree with because he'll routinely rush three and drop eight, which more often than not gives the QB all day to throw, and even with eight guys in coverage they can only cover for so long. The other issue I have with what he does on defense is that he employs what he would probably call a 4-3, but it's really more of a 4-2-5 and he's shown a propensity for going with undersized players at LB in favor of more speed on the field. The issue with this is unless you have dominant DTs to keep blockers off your LBs, which OU has not for the last two years, your undersized LBs typically have difficulty shedding the blocks of the much bigger players allowed to get their hands on them.
To that same point, he either doesn't know (unlikely) what a nickel or dime package is or simply refuses (more likely) to utilize them. He will keep 2-3 LBs on the field at all times, no matter the down and distance, allowing opposing offenses to get athletic TEs and WRs matched up on LBs which is obviously something most teams can exploit. Even against five wide sets, he'll keep both LBs on the field which forced his LBs to cover WRs and I've just never understood how he can think that was a good thing for his defense.
STS Comment: Issues against mobile QBs? I hope these are only Heisman winners that Venables struggles against and not Maryland's backup.
STS Question: We understand that Venables will bring an aggressive 4-3 base defense featuring more zone play. I also understand that he prefers a 4-3 Over (CU under Steele showed a lot of 4-3 Under). What variations of this look did he like to show at OU and how stubborn was he to make formational adjustments?
C&CM Answer: As I described in the previous question, calling Venables system a 4-3 really isn't accurate. He's a big fan of what we've come to call "hybrid" players at that third LB spot. Guys that are too small to be called a true LB while usually also being a little too big, slow, or both to be a traditional safety. He clearly views this as an advantage for his defense in not having to substitute regardless of what the offense is doing. He believes that the player he puts in this position will be good enough to defend both the run or pass well enough not to be exposed for being too small as a LB or too slow to keep up in coverage.
He's a big fan of zone blitzing, bringing guys from all different positions, but he's probably an even bigger fan of the delayed blitz. I have to confess, I've never really understood his affinity for the delayed blitz as unless the secondary can force the QB to hold the ball a delayed blitz has very little chance of getting pressure.
If there is one thing I could point to in terms of stubbornness, it would be his inability for his defenses to defend the middle of the field. If you're not accustomed to watching your opponents run short crossing routes over the middle of the field and wondering how on earth they could work time and time again, I'd suggest you prepare yourself. Because of what you pointed out (his preference for zone vs. man) and what we pointed out (keeping his LBs on the field at all times) these kind of routes can be easily exploited against his defense because the WR/TEs are frequently matched up one-on-one against a LB.
STS Comment: What he means is that their 4-3 Over plays like a 4-2-5 in that the WLB is often walked out in coverage, as opposed to Steele's common substitution to Nickel. The difference here is that a guy like T.J. Burrell is suited to this hybrid spot as a bulky SS/small LB. John Chavis' system at LSU is quite similar in that respect. The inability to defend the middle is a characteristic both of Willie Martinez' amazing suckage and a Cover 2 system.
The latter comment about LB/DB substitution is distressing though...
STS Question: Are there any situational tendencies that Venables' showed that will be obvious and how successful was BV at mixing things up enough with blitz packages and new wrinkles to keep opponents on their toes?
C&CM Answer: He'll work in some variations here and there, but for the most part his system is his system. Some of his tweaks work better than others, which is certainly understandable, the problem we saw (at least this year) was that when he does add something new he's going to stick with it even if it's not working. He implemented a three man front early this season and despite it failing to work with any kind of success, he stuck with it on and off for almost the entire season.
I'm convinced that he believes his defensive system will work against any offense as long as his players do what they're asked. It's why, in my opinion, he and Bob Stoops changed very little of what they did on defense in 13 years. You would know better than I, maybe his personnel next year will force him to do some different things, but I'd expect that if he's there long enough your defense will look very similar to Oklahoma's.
STS: I think we see a big similarity here to Steele overall. We will see...