Defensive tackle was expected to be a drop off after Adrian Taylor never fully recovered from a broken ankle and Gerald McCoy was the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft. Other key losses included linebacker Keenan Clayton, who is playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year's starting cornerbacks are on NFL rosters.
Still, the defense struggled more than expected early in the season. Middle linebacker Austin Box was sidelined two months by a back injury, forcing redshirt freshman Tom Wort to start most of the season. Injuries at defensive tackle hit an area that was already thin.
Two reasons OU's defense has improved late in the season are Box has solidified the middle and Ronnell Lewis has made an impact at defensive end after missing three games with a sprained knee.
â€œIt goes without saying it's been a work in progress,â€ Venables said. â€œThe inconsistencies have been frustrating. (The improvement) was everybody starting to understand what their responsibility is, playing together and guys improving overall.â€
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said scrutiny comes with the territory for coordinators at high-profile programs.
â€œIt's great to be at a place where people care, they have passion,â€ Wilson said. â€œWe want to shut everybody down. We want to score a touchdown every time. No one is any more critical of ourselves than we are. ...
â€œBut if you just look at Big 12 stats against comparable teams, our defense stacks up pretty well. Our defense has played well down the stretch.â€
In conference games, OU ranks third in the Big 12 in total defense, second in run defense and third in pass defense.
The past month has been a turnaround for a defense that surrendered 486 yards in a loss at Missouri and struggled in the fourth quarter at Texas A&M.
â€œIf we're giving up 400 yards, it's 100 percent on the players because he puts us in the right calls,â€ Lewis said. â€œHe's up here 23 out of the 24 hours each day. I bet his wife (probably) hates him by now. I'm surprised they're not divorced. ... He's a coach you really respect.â€