Oklahoma Football: What’s the difference in defensive line?

“We want to be versatile in defence.”

It has become a standard cliché for almost every new college football coach. Generally, that means using a variety of lineups on the D. But when first-year Oklahoma Sooners coach Brent Venables said he’d prefer a multiple on defense, he meant it. The longtime defensive architect at the OU and Clemson makes the tipping point seem non-stop throughout the game – often without changing personnel on the field.

Even after the OU made a bunch of additions to its roster earlier this year, Venables is essentially making its version of Multiple Defense using groceries from the former coaching staff. So what will that look like when the Sooners take the field against UTEP over Labor Day weekend? Let’s explore this question through the lens of the defensive front, where most transitions begin to align.


Annual presentations of Venables’ defenses during his tenures with the OU from 1999-2011 and with Clemson from 2012 to 2021 did not result in a lack of analysis of his defense schemes. One of the best soccer junkies came from Cameron Soran of Throw Deep Publishing, who has updated his comprehensive analysis over time to include new wrinkles and developments. The Project Coordinator also posted a helpful video of Venables’ defense earlier this year, showing examples from Clemson’s 2021 season to illustrate how parts of his approach have evolved.

If you want to tag Venables’ base defense, you can call it 4-2-5 or 4-3. More often than not, you will likely see some merger of four defensive line guys and/or two forward players somewhere around the line of scrimmage. Behind them, the Venables typically roll with two inner linebackers and a hybrid safety playing in the space, dubbed “The Cheetah.” Rounding off the unit are two standard cabinets and two rear corner cabinets.

The shot above, pulled from a video by Coordinator Project, provides a good example of aligning the Venables rule. Taken from Clemson vs. Wake Forest in 2021, the attacking Demon Demons line up in 11 with one running back and one tight end. Tiger counter with four crewmen in front and two ILBs directly behind. Cheetah (No. 22 Trenton Simpson) reaches the field side of the formation in space about six yards from the line of melee.

In terms of fronts, what Venables and former OU defense coordinator Alex Grinch want isn’t much different.

You’ll see one obvious exception in the photo above from last year’s OU game against Nebraska. In the Grinch’s #SpeedD, the edge player lined up to the limit – referred to as RUSH LB – is in a two-point position as the outside quarterback in a traditional 3-4 scheme. Doing so means sacrificing some leverage at the point of attack against offensive interference in exchange for giving RUSH more flexibility and freedom of movement.

Frontin’ in the spring

This year’s Red-White provided a preview of what OU’s defensive scheme will look like in the fall. The vast majority of the shots found that the defense stays in a front four.

The image above is from the first play of the Spring game, and it sums up most of the day for the OU’s line of defense. As the attack begins on the right hash, the defense comes out with 4-2-5 personnel. The line is placed in the lower foreground—the nose tackle, #88 Jordan Kelly, shades the center toward the narrow end and field side of the shaping. Defensive Intervention, No. 77, Jeffrey Johnson, plays with three techniques towards the boundary in the gap between the offensive guard and the tackle. Both sides of the defense get their hands in the dirt, with No. 14 Reggie Grimes lining the border and No. 8 Jonah Lulu taking to the field.

D did throw in a few triple looks at times during the spring match:

In this case, Grimes moved from his position on the defensive line to play in a two-point position with inside influence on the separate tight end (#18 Kaden Helms). Meanwhile, the remaining three transport workers turned to the Tite front. Kelly plays a zero technique over center. Both Johnson and Laolo Kelly are flanked by 4i techs, so they line up in the inner eye for the offensive tackle.

Personnel Affairs

In terms of who will play in place this season, the spring game didn’t provide much rhyme or reason about ranking positions on the defensive line. For example, there don’t seem to be any rules that are easy to decipher based on the power of offensive formations running or setting for a field or boundary. At the moment, it seems best to categorize the defensemen into two camps.

First, there are the entries that will play inside:

  • Kelly
  • Johnson
  • Isaiah Coo
  • Josh Ellison
  • Corey Roberson
  • Galen Redmond
  • Kelvin Gilliam

Expect to see a great deal of rotation between this group, although not as much as under the previous training regime.

Then there are the edge players:

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

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

In terms of new students coming in like R. Mason Thomas and Grace Halton, it’s hard to imagine any of them Not Get a red shirt in 2022.

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