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Why DE Ethan Downs and Oklahoma's Defense Can Still Make Major Improvements This Season

Brent Venables' defense has impressed in 2023, but OU's head coach still believes there's another level the unit can reach over the final six regular season games.

NORMAN — Oklahoma’s pass rush staged a small coming out part in the Cotton Bowl.

Brent Venables’ defense hit home time after time, sacking Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers five times and logging three other hurries in OU’s 34-30 win over the Longhorns.

In the previous five games, the No. 6-ranked Sooners tallied nine sacks, but the defensive line picked a big moment to put everything together.

Defensive end Ethan Downs led the way with two sacks, and defensive tackles Da’Jon Terry and Jacob Lacey both pulled down Ewers once apiece. Linebacker Jaren Kanak also finished with a sack, chipping in for a unit that has fought through plenty of formations designed to keep multiple extra blockers in to protect the quarterback.

Steve Sarkisian’s Texas offense has the firepower to put points on any team, and he trusted his offensive line a bit more than OU’s previous opponents to try and repel Oklahoma’s defensive line.

“They stayed in the pocket more,” Downs said of Texas’ approach, “which is why we were able to get a few more sacks and more pressure on the QB. They could sit back there a little longer and we were able to get more pressure with our blitzes.

“We still saw some max protection. Being able to recognize that allowed a lot of our guys plays. We expect switch ups — change ups — every week. We’re always on our toes.”

Downs’ pair of sacks against the Longhorns brought his total this season to 3.5, which paces the team.

Oklahoma enters the week ranked No. 53-overall, getting to opposing quarterbacks 2.3 times per game, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Transfers like Rondel Bothroyd, Trace Ford, Terry and Lacey are still getting acclimated to Venables’ defense, while R Mason Thomas works back into the rotation after dealing with an early-season ankle issue and freshman Adepoju Adebawore continues to gain more experience.

But Downs has taken his game to another level in his second season working with Venables and defensive ends coach Miguel Chavis, and he’s grown into a leadership role both on and off the field.

“I thought maybe last year he, it was paralysis by analysis,” Venables said of Downs on Tuesday. “Just overthinking things and just not turning it loose.

“… So it's exactly opposite of that now. And he still has tremendous upside. You know, to me, he's still not anywhere close to what he can be. But that's really a reflection of really why I feel like our whole team is. As good as things have been up to this point in time with several scars... we're not anywhere close to being the team that I believe that we can be, and Ethan is one of those guys. But he's playing pretty good.”

Like Downs, Oklahoma’s defense isn’t yet a finished product in 2023.

Venables refused to call his unit dominant after holding Cincinnati out of the end zone in OU’s 20-6 win over the Bearcats in September. Things haven’t been near perfect yet, which Venables’ high standard for dominance.

Part of the bye week film work was showing the defense all of the mental mistakes against Texas, all points of emphasis the coaches believe the Sooner defense can correct over the back half of the regular season.

“I think there’s still so much we gotta improve upon, man,” linebacker Danny Stutsman said last Monday. “Just looking at it I think there was still so many, like, little mistakes here and there that really cost us big.

“Little bust here and there… Guys a second too late on a read… I really think we need to improve upon that, but fortunately we have a lot of games to improve upon that.”

But it’s still a unit playing with plenty of confidence, and the performance in the Cotton Bowl only served to reinforce the swagger Oklahoma’s defense is currently displaying on Saturday’s.

Now, Downs hopes the defensive line will be able to carry the momentum into Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest with UCF.

“When you get a pass rush, it’s go, go, go,” he said. “No hesitation, don’t read too much, just go and be confident in your pass rush. You don’t get too many opportunities in a game.

“You get that slide protection and you read your keys and act like an experienced player and react and get to the ball. You do the things you practice every day and apply them on the field.”