Venables Now Sees Solid Defensive Foundation For Sooners

Wednesday, October 31st 2007, 2:44 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ The loss of two starting linebackers and both starting defensive ends left No. 5 Oklahoma with some uncertainty on defense heading into the season.

Curtis Lofton and Auston English have done everything they can to turn those question marks into strong points on the 11th-ranked defense in the nation.

``Some guys have really stepped up and become some premier playmakers, which before the season until you play you don't really know. We really feel like we can have a tremendous foundation for a really strong defense,'' said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who has only four senior starters.

``Hopefully we finish off this stretch run, which we need to, and obviously the future bodes well.''

Lofton, who started four games last season, has turned into a defensive star in the past three games. The junior forced a fumble by Texas running back Jamaal Charles inside the 5-yard line, then returned a fumble for a touchdown in an 18-tackle performance against Missouri. Finally, he tipped a pass that was intercepted in the end zone by safety D.J. Wolfe in the fourth quarter to help seal a win at Iowa State.

English leads the Big 12 with 8 1/2 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in his first year as a starter. The sophomore redshirted last season after limited action as a freshman.

``A lot of times even in max protection, he's made a bunch of plays rushing the quarterback. He's made a lot of plays in the run game too, making the tackles for lost yardage,'' Venables said. ``That's always a great indicator of a really good football player and the level that he's playing is tackles for loss. It's not like we're a big blitz team. Overall, he's making a lot of plays when we're not blitzing, so he's beating and whooping somebody up in front of him.''

Sooners coach Bob Stoops said an NFL scout who's visited the team every season was back in town this week and asked, ``Who the heck is 33?''

``He's just a young sophomore. Leave him alone,'' Stoops responded.

There's a reason the scout was interested. English has a 35-inch vertical leap and can bench press 400 pounds.

``Auston's a really good athlete and he plays with great leverage, uses his hands in a great way, and he's got a great motor,'' Stoops said. ``He's got a great tenacity and aggressiveness getting to the ball.''

Venables said it's not uncommon for scouts to notice younger players if they have natural ability like English.

``He's got a great first step. That jumps out at everybody,'' Venables said. ``Everybody's like, `Hey, No. 33, he's a really explosive player.'''

English said the NFL still seems far off at this point, and he realizes it's a long process to make it that far.

``I don't even think about it at all,'' English said. ``This is my first year of playing here, and I'm enjoying it and having fun doing things.''


REYNOLDS' RETURN: Outside linebacker Ryan Reynolds, a late scratch for the Sooners' last game because of a neck injury, is expected to return after the bye week provided extra time to rest.

Venables said Reynolds has been doing everything in practice and could handle full contact, even though Oklahoma hasn't been doing that in practice.

``He probably could play full speed, but no need. He's practicing and will be out there with a green light on Saturday,'' Venables said.

Reynolds, who's had two knee surgeries in the past 18 months and also injured his arm earlier this season, ranks fourth on the team with 48 tackles, including 7 1/2 for a loss.

``He's a real integral part of what we're doing and hopefully he can stay healthy,'' Venables said. ``We need him to. he makes a big difference when he's in there.''

Venables also expects backup defensive tackle Steven Coleman (back) to return after missing the past three games.


OFF THE ROAD AGAIN: After playing four of their last five games away from Owen Field, the Sooners will finish the regular season with three of their final four games at home.

It's a welcome sight for Oklahoma, which struggled in its two true road games in Big 12 play, losing at Colorado and needing to rally late for a 17-7 win at last-place Iowa State.

``If you want to look across the country, I think everybody's better at home than they are on the road, so that isn't anything just attached to us,'' Stoops said. ``I think every team is that way. ... I think our road record overall is probably better than most in our league, if not the best, depending on how you want to look at it.''

Since Big 12 play began in 1996, the Sooners have the second-most road wins in conference play with 27. Only Texas (30) has more.

Defensive end Alan Davis said the Sooners' problem on the road this season was ``losing a little bit of concentration.''

``We try to keep our enthusiasm level up high, but sometimes you get off to a slow start,'' Davis said. ``You've got to take that slow start and just build off of it and gain momentum.''