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Oklahoma LB Jaren Kanak Now Has an 'Idea What He's Doing,' Motivated to Know More

The Sooners' rising sophomore is still studying as hard as he can to learn Brent Venables' defense and is earning the praise of his coaches and teammates.

NORMAN — Remember when Brent Venables said Jaren Kanak had no idea what he was doing and the freshman linebacker made 10 tackles, and forced and recovered a fumble at Nebraska?

Well, now Kanak knows what he’s doing.


“There’s a lot to learn,” Kanak said Thursday after the Sooners finished their second session of spring football practice. “Nobody’s going to master it. Probably Coach Venables is the only one who has mastered it. There’s still a lot to learn.”

Kanak is bigger and stronger as he begins Year Two at Oklahoma. He’s also more experienced now, and knows Venables’ defensive calls, and processes the game faster.

“Have another year under your belt, it’s a lot easier to understand,” Kanak said. “We come out here and fly around and have more fun with a little more understanding. We’re still learning every day.”

Kanak, who was a priority recruit for Venables at Clemson as a high school prospect out of Kansas. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman and finished his season with 24 total tackles.

When senior Dashaun White was ejected from the Nebraska game, Kanak was thrown in the fire and was highly productive — even if he didn’t really know what was going on.

“He is an easy guy to coach,” Venables said that day, “because he's really demanding on himself as opposed to being a young, immature freshman that doesn't want to be told when he's terrible. And he wasn't terrible today, but he made some mistakes.”

Kanak played quarterback and safety as a senior at Hays High School, where he became a 4-star recruit. He set the school record with 1,615 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, and was named 11-Man Player of the Year in Kansas. Before that, he played wide receiver.

“Jaren Kanak, last year was his first year playing defense,” linebackers coach Ted Roof said on Tuesday. “And he did it at Oklahoma in the Big 12. His offseason development and growth, you’ve seen that a lot.”

Kanak’s breakout in Lincoln didn’t necessarily portend more playing time the rest of the 2022 season. In fact, there were games the linebacker corps struggled and Kanak still remained on the sideline. Fans frequently called for more Kanak.

Practice performance and meetings and film study matters to the coaching staff. Kanak was physically capable of playing, but the coaches determined he wasn’t always mentally ready for a major role in the Big 12 grind.

He finished the season with 357 total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, but only 138 of those came on defense. The rest were special teams. Most of his action came early, too, as Kanak played just two defensive snaps each against West Virginia and Oklahoma State, zero in the season finale at Texas Tech, and two in the Cheez-It Bowl, per PFF. He also didn’t get defensive snaps against either Kansas State or Iowa State, but he still graded out at 68 percent for the season, which is considered in the “good” range.

“It was a good experience,” Kanak said, “getting a little taste of it, and it motivated me more. I know I can be better than I was last year, obviously. It just motivated me more to come out here and work towards being a better player.”

For Kanak, the days of “find ball, hit ball” are over. Now in his second spring at OU, he’s thinking his way through the game, using his experience to anticipate what the offense is doing and using his preparation to react with the same track-speed mentality.

“The expectation is the same and the standard is the same,” Kanak said. “They just want the best out of everybody. You can critique and say there might be a little more to it. But if you’re out here on the field getting reps, they expect the best out of you. It’s as simple as that.”

Kanak said he has the same sense of urgency he had as a freshman. That won’t change because it’s the only way he knows to approach the game. But he also knows that urgency can only produce results because he’s continuing to put in the work.

“I always have the urgency,” he said. “I feel like I can get better. I think everyone should. Everyone should be striving to improve themselves, to come out here and train themselves to get better. That’s what we’re out here to do – to get better.”

That, said rising junior Danny Stutsman, is absolutely happening for Kanak.

Last year Stutsman led the Big 12 Conference in total tackles. His game evolved and improved so much over the course of the 2022 season, he became the face of the defense and was playing at an all-star level by the end of the season. Now he’s the leader of the linebacker group, and he’s glad to offer a brutally honest assessment on his younger peers.

“Jaren is years ahead of where I was, when you look back at it,” Stutsman said. “He has that work ethic, but he's still young. He's got a lot to learn. He keeps his head up. He's a hard-working dude, and we're always pushing each other. We're kind of go back and forth. We're always competing.”

The academic side of the game continues to come at him. As Kanak suggested, learning Venables’ scheme is a never-ending quest. His goal is to keep studying until it’s second nature to him.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” he said. “Film study will take your game to the next level. Time management and getting in there and watching film and getting the guys in to watch film as much as we can, it’s a big staple and part of what we’re trying to do.

“We’re all working toward knowing as much as possible.” 

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