ACC Preview Week: Clemson puts its defense in Brent Venables’ hands

I’m here to make sure your defense stops sucking.

One of the more high-profile moves on the coaching circuit didn’t actually involve a head coach. Following a 70-33 thrashing at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, Dabo Swinney decided that he had seen enough of Kevin Steele’s defense. Clemson’s head coach put one of his patented recruiting pitches on Brent Venables and managed to lure away Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator for a reportedly hefty sum of $800,000 per year.

Once considered a rising star on the coaching circuit, Venables’ stock took a beating in 2011. After starting the season with lofty national championship hopes, the Sooners limped home to a 10-3 record. Venables’ defense took the lion’s share of the blame for the disappointing season from OU fans and the media, as the Sooners secondary was torched in losses to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma St.

In fact, ’11 marched to a familiar beat for the Sooner D: Steel Curtain one week, a sieve the next. At least once or twice a year since Venables took over for Mike Stoops in 2004, OU would come up against an offense that would tear it to shreds and submarine what looked like a promising season.

The fact that OU coach Bob Stoops brought his brother back into the fold doesn’t come off as a vote of confidence. The stats also suggest that OU’s defense pretty clearly regressed under Venables’ watch, too.

Oklahoma Total Defense, 1999-2011
Year Avg. Yards Allowed
(Natl. Rank)
1999 344.4 (11)
2000 278.9 (8)
2001 262.8 (4)
2002 293.1 (10)
2003 259.6 (3)
2004 299.0 (13)
2005 306.67 (13)
2006 287.1 (16)
2007 338.4 (26)
2008 367.7 (68)
2009 272.6 (8)
2010 361.9 (53)
2011 383.2 (62)

And this is the guy who Swinney is entrusting to get his defense over the hump?

Before any Tiger fans go jumping off of Howard’s Rock, though, let’s take a closer look Venables’ track record.

Offensive explosion

Venables’ tenure as OU’s defensive architect just so happened to coincide with the rise of the spread offense in the Big 12. As opposed to the more conventional offenses that the Sooners were snuffing out in the early 2000s, OU began facing high-octane attacks on a weekly basis. Pass-happy opponents such as Texas Tech and Baylor started launching aerial assaults on defenses, often doing so at a rapid-fire, no-huddle pace so that teams were running more plays per fame. Not surprisingly, overall offensive output began to rise across the conference.

Big 12 Total Offense (Median), 1999-2011
Year Avg. Total Offense
Natl. Rank
1999 374.3 57
2000 372.1 57
2001 375.7 60
2002 385.9 47.5
2003 409.1 34
2004 368.1 64
2005 345.0 79.5
2006 382.8 27.5
2007 455.9 16
2008 441.6 16.5
2009 389.5 51
2010 403.9 39.5
2011 471.5 13

No favors for the home team

Noting how well the spread was working for the Big 12’s middle class, Bob Stoops decided that if you want to beat ’em more, join ’em.


OU began airing it out and picking up the pace as well. The Sooners converted to a no-huddle O in 2007 and started running more plays and scoring more points. OU ran an average of 64 plays per game in 2006 and scored 30 points per game. In 2011 those numbers had climbed to 81 plays per game and 40 per game.

It has made for some eye-popping stats, but it doesn’t help a D when your answer to combating uptempo offenses is to speed your own offense up even more.

Defensive efficiency

Factors were conspiring against Venables that made a statistical slide inevitable. Luckily, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings give us a handy tool for comparing teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency. These numbers suggest Venables’ defenses have actually been some of the best in the country year in and year out, raw stats aside.

Oklahoma S&P+, Defense (Nat’l. Rank)
Year Overall Success PPP Rush Pass Std
2011 7 N/A N/A 6 10 3 11
2010 7 2 20 12 10 12 5
2009 5 3 6 7 5 2 5
2008 9 2 10 8 6 8 9
2007 13 7 17 21 10 5 5

So, was Venables worth it?

Bob Stoops would give you an unequivocal yes. Venables spent 12 seasons as the right-hand man to one of the best head coaches in college football, one who has a pretty strong reputation as a defensive mind in his own right. They won a lot of games together.

Venables’ mentor fought like hell to keep him at OU, because Stoops recognizes better than anyone the value in Venables’ ability to scheme and his tenacious approach to recruiting. Factor in that Venables has proven himself to be a stellar linebackers coach and you’ve got an excellent addition to the Tigers’ staff.

Venables definitely collected his fair share of blemishes at Oklahoma, but he’s also leaving a conference of rocket-powered offenses. The ACC has some fine coaches, but the week-to-week tests just won’t measure up to what he has been accustomed to in the Big 12.

Whether or not Venables can hit the ground running at Clemson in his first season remains to be seen. In the long run, though, Tiger fans should feel confident that Clemson’s D is in capable hands under their new coordinator.