There will be an adjustment when Zac Alley begins work as OU defensive coordinator. Alley is 30 years old, half the age of predecessor Ted Roof.
This being Oklahoma, imagine a country radio station going from Merle Haggard to Zach Bryan. A different energy and delivery. Alley’s target audience being 18-to-22-year-olds, the changed tone should be agreeable, but it is a change nonetheless.
Considering the Sooners are also changing conferences with a higher degree of difficulty, is Brent Venables taking a big risk here? Would it have been safer to retain the coordinator who started coaching six years before Alley’s birth?
Venables didn’t do this out of energy and delivery. He did it out of familiarity.
Alley spent seven years working on Brent Venables’ defensive staff at Clemson, which explains why he coaches, talks and even gesticulates like the OU head coach. He has been with Venables more than half his coaching life.
That association should cut down on Alley’s adjustment to OU.
So should the association between the players and Alley’s scheme, since it is Venables’ scheme.
“Everything I do is based on what Coach Venables did at Clemson. That’s been the foundation for how I’ve built defenses,” Alley said in the OU press release Saturday making his hire as co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach official. “I always respected how he handled himself as a coach and as a man, and I wanted to emulate that as best I could.
“From the moment I met him, I always wanted to be like him, have a career like his, lead the best defense in the country like him. He’s obviously had a huge influence on me and I’m excited to be back with him.”
The players don’t know Alley any more personally than we do. Maybe they discover that they went from Merle Haggard to Bad Bunny, that the vibe is going to be different than they could have ever imagined.
“I hope I can bring some of the same energy and juice that Coach Venables has,” Alley said. “As a younger guy, I relate to the players really well and hopefully I can bring some knowledge and energetic leadership on the field.”
Regardless of “juice,” the system is no different. It is Venables’, same as it was when Roof was defensive coordinator in title only and Jay Valai and Todd Bates were listed as co-coordinators. (Valai and Bates remain co-coordinators alongside Alley according to job titles.)
The players are entrenched in that system.
Thirteen OU defenders made multiple tackles in the Dec. 28 Alamo Bowl loss to Arizona. All but safety Reggie Pearson return next season.
Nine OU defenders made the first, second or honorable mention All-Big 12 teams. Seven return next season.
First-teamers Danny Stutsman and Billy Bowman know Roof more than they do Alley, having spent the past two seasons with Roof at OU while Alley was at Jacksonville State.
But since Alley’s seven years with Venables top Roof’s two, and the model is Venables’ in either coordinator’s case, Stutsman and Bowman should find the football mesh with Alley easier than it was when Stutsman, Bowman, Roof and Venables came together in 2022.
All-Big 12 second-teamer Ethan Downs should find the football mesh easier. So should honorable mention picks Woodi Washington, Gentry Williams, Kip Lewis and Kendel Dolby, and Alamo Bowl contributors Dasan McCullough, Jaren Kanak, Peyton Bowen, Kani Walker, Robert Spears-Jennings and R Mason Thomas.
That’s enough returning defensive players to fill out a starting lineup as the Sooners transition into the SEC. That’s plenty enough to take some pressure off Alley as he adjusts to a new level of competition, not to mention a new level of expectations, in a new home in a new part of the country.
What’s old, or a year older at least, is the first line of Alley’s defense. That must be of great comfort to a 30-year-old guy who must find a place to live and figure out how to get to work and figure out what motivational buttons to start pushing once he gets to work.
Alley and the Sooners need to get the psychology right. They’ll have more luck defending Jaxson Dart, Jalen Milroe, Quinn Ewers and bowl-winning quarterbacks Brady Cook, Garrett Mussmeier and Nico Iamaleava in the SEC if they like what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for. We’ll see about that.
We’ll see how Alley handles his new Zip code and new staff and any playlist changes in the meeting or locker room. Maybe he’s partial to Mr. Haggard.
At least everyone can be sure of the scheme. OU’s defensive concepts haven’t changed because the head coach hasn’t.
And if Alley ought to depend on his relationship with Venables to help with his adjustment, he ought to lean just as hard on Stutsman, Bowman and those players.
He might not know them, but they know him. They know his system because they know Venables’.
If we discover that the resemblance between Venables and Alley is overblown, and OU’s defensive players need time to figure out their new coordinator’s tics, there should be no such delay in terms of their new coordinator’s football.
Not with these players or this head coach.