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At Saturday's Spring Game, Will Oklahoma Be a More Physical Football Team?

Coming off so many painful close losses last season, the Sooners have doubled their efforts to be more physical on offense and defense and not let games slip away late.

It was early November, and Oklahoma had just lost another one-possession game, this time at home to Baylor.

New coach Brent Venables, at times looking and sounding utterly despondent, couldn’t offer up any tactile answers for what had just happened.

“Their team was more physical,” Venables offered. “Why is that? I don’t know.”

Fast forward five months, and the Sooners this week will unveil a preview of the work that Venables and his team have been doing to fix that dark autumn day.

The OU Spring Game is here, and Oklahoma – player and coach – chanted it like a holy mantra during the winter: “we must be more physical.”

“It literally is never good enough,” Venables said during his most recent post-practice interview, “but we’re getting better.”

Venables has described more than once this spring how his defense wasn’t very physical at the point of attack last year, how the front seven got moved off the football far too easily on third and fourth down. Similarly, there were instances in short-yardage situations where the Sooners failed to convert a first down and put that defense back on the field.

It’s a mentality, a mindset that you will not be defeated on any given snap by the person in front of you. There’s an element of preparation before the ball is snapped, and an element of mental toughness when the collision happens and the play stalemates, a refusal to relent.

And it doesn’t just happen on game day. It must be practiced and repeated and sharpened.

“It’s all a mentality,” said safety Billy Bowman. “You come to work every day. It’s something you have to want to do. If you don’t want to do it, then it won’t get done. But if you want to do it, you can put your mind to it.”

OU lost five games last year where the opponent was within one score. Each time, the Sooners had a chance late to get a stop and get the football back, but the other team either drove down for the winning score or put the game away because the OU defense couldn’t off the field.

For Venables, fixing that is Job One this offseason.

“You fix it every day in practice,” said linebacker Danny Stutsman. “Those guys who are leaders step up and demand it out of those guys. I mean, Kobe Bryant went to practice every day and he pushed everyone else. And to set that standard, you've got to do that standard. I've got to get out here and I've got to set the standard, be physical, push the o-line and the d-line and keep raising the levels.”

Maybe some of that will show up on Saturday in the Red/White Game. But a handful of players will miss that game, in part, because the elevated physicality has already manifested in practice every day.

Some guys are just a little beat up.

“In terms of physicality,” you’ve got to drill it,” said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “You’ve got to demand it. And then when you put pads on, you’ve got to do it over and over again. We coach really hard because it’s a habit just like anything else.”

“You have to practice,” Venables said. “Guys get bumps and bruises. That’s part of the game. Nobody likes it, but that is a by-product of developing your team. You can’t practice in a soft way and expect to play in a hard, tough, physical way. That’s all going to be part of the journey.”

The drawback is injuries, of course. But the payoff is a team full of tough-minded individuals.

“I'm enjoying the physicality,” linebacker Kobie McKinzie said.

“Last year,” said safety Robert Spears-Jennings, “we weren’t as physical as we are now.”

“It's definitely interesting,” said defensive lineman Isaiah Coe. “Coach V, one of his things is physicality – offensive line, defensive line, perimeter. So just doing that, trying to be the most dominant team, moving people.”

After Saturday, any healing can begin. After Saturday, the players will enjoy a light schedule of weight room maintenance, followed by a semester break. More strides toward mental toughness happen in the fires of summer workouts, with short breaks in the middle and at the end. And then, fall training camp will be here the first of August – a mere three months away.

And the path to avoiding that Baylor (or Kansas State or West Virginia or Texas Tech or Florida State) postgame feeling can take shape once again every day in practice. As Venables said, it’s never enough.

“It can always be more physical,” said running backs coach DeMarco Murray.

“We're working on that,” Venables said, “and we've had a few days that are like that. But you need more days like that.

“I’m satisfied with never being satisfied. Satisfied with being unsatisfied. I’ve got this expectation and standards that are so high. I know we’re never gonna get to where I would like to get. So you just go back after it every single day.”