NORMAN — Football is finally here.
At Oklahoma, practice begins Friday morning, and with it begins an urgency to install a brand new offense and a brand new defense — and have at least the minimal foundation of both firmly in place 30 days from now.
“We’re applying pressure from an install standpoint,” offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. ”We want to make these guys strain as much mentally as physically while putting them in positions of success as well. It’s a fine line.”
Most of the installation process has already taken place. That happened during spring practice. Coaches used 15 practices to force feed the new schemes to the players.
“I feel like coming out of spring, we were probably a little further ahead than I anticipated,” said offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. “Is that good or bad? I don't know. Obviously you're putting in a new system, some different techniques, some different things that we're doing. So I felt like they really worked at it. Really studied it. Got better throughout the spring. Obviously we have a ways to go, but felt good coming out of spring.”
But the players have slept since then. Time has passed. Some of what became second nature in the spring has already been forgotten. The start of training camp kick starts the learning process all over again.
Now, though, instead of taking in copious amounts of new information all at once, players are having to simply recall what they subconsciously know, familiarize themselves with things they simply don’t remember.
Also, changes in the structure of summer workouts and alterations to interactions and time on task the NCAA allows between coach and player keeps the August learning curve smaller.
“All summer long, we worked on game plans,” said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “So the installation to mirror what we’re going to see the first several games, we got a big jump on that as a staff.”
“What we decided to do collectively, if we have to split it up among the eight hours a week,” head coach Brent Venables said, “we chose to continue to educate and develop our guys with the Xs and Os and fundamentals – things of that nature. So we spent a little bit more time trying to continue to create momentum and confidence in those things trying to go into the season.”
Players described the summer process as more than just “learning.” It’s actually “experiencing.”
“I think in-season, it’ll be week-to-week,” said quarterback Dillon Gabriel. “Obviously things change and things are set for those weeks. But I think in the spring, going through each install and going in-depth and setting the foundation — and then getting to June, and resetting it again in July and kind of looking it over one more time — I felt like a lot of guys were extremely comfortable with it.
“Now we go into fall camp knowing everything, getting some pre-camp installs to where there are newer things that he can pre-load onto us just because we’re really comfortable with where we have been already.”
Offensive players said in addition to the standard morning and evening throwing sessions, Gabriel — who learned Lebby’s offense as a true freshman at Central Florida — even hosted group studies at his house over the summer in strictly a teaching role.
Sept. 3 will get here soon enough. The UTEP Miners aren’t going to arrive early. The schedule is the schedule.
But there’s still an underlying urgency with a new coaching staff and a new system that everyone has to learn. And it’s more than just the playbook.
“Forty percent of our roster has never taken a snap in an Oklahoma uniform,” Venables said. “What can we do to bridge that gap? We’re going to utilize that those guys do have a lot of experience playing college football. That was with the transfers that we brought in. How can we best utilize that experience? Those are things that we are trying accomplish.
“We want a confident, physical, tough, blue-collar work ethic team. Coming out of fall camp, I want our guys to be incredibly confident through the work that we put in over the last several months. Certainly fall camp is a huge part of that.”
“Yeah, there is a newness,” Roof said. “Every day gets a little bit better. But certainly as you go through Year One of most staffs — but you know what? You’re always learning. If you’re not learning, you’re falling behind, whether it’s Year 36 or Year 2. So that part of it, we’re trying to learn every day.”
Roof said he’s been impressed so far, and explained why he expects that to continue into the season.
“I see an improved football IQ,” Roof said. “You can tell that. You can tell the guys have been working because of that, as far as knowing assignments, understanding where their help is. … Details like that allow you to play fast and allow you not to have to think and process, as opposed to react.
“All those things that go into the pre-snap process that, the more you can understand and recognize that, the faster you can play. Because then you can anticipate. Because that’s what the really great players do, they play ahead of the play instead of behind the play.”
Lebby also expressed satisfaction about the players’ intellect.
“We’ve got a smart football team,” Lebby said. “We’ve got guys that understand football and guys that love learning and love getting better when they’re not on the grass. That’s a huge part of it. It’s a credit to them that we are able to get into it as deep as we are as fast as we are.”