That Oklahoma has the most alumni in Super Bowl LVIII, same as Super Bowl LVII, should be a source of button-busting pride.
Let’s put this into context…
There are no Alabama Crimson Tide products on either the Chiefs or 49ers rosters. There is one Texas Longhorn and one USC Trojan.
OU runs six onto the Allegiant Stadium field on Super Bowl Sunday: Trent Williams, Brayden Willis, Creed Humphrey, Wanya Morris, Blake Bell and James Winchester.
OU ran six onto the Super Bowl field last year for Chiefs-Eagles: Winchester, Bell, Humphrey, Orlando Brown, Jalen Hurts and Lane Johnson. Clemson, LSU and Ohio State ran one (the Buckeyes’ representative was OU transfer Trey Sermon). Texas ran none.
The last time the two Super Bowl rosters did not include any Sooners was in 2013. That’s a strong run with an even stronger recency bias. It’s worth some sparkle in the Switzer Center hallway highlighting OU’s NFL pipeline.
More tangibly, it helps Brent Venables recruit on two fronts.
As much as name, image and likeness has entered conversations, football recruits still put NFL potential atop their college checklist. College coaches leverage NFL Draft success here most obviously, something Venables can tout related to the past 25 years, or the past 15, and something Venables hopes to tout louder moving forward in the NFL assembly line SEC.
If the players’ end game after draft day is the Super Bowl, Venables should tout that loudest. A sample pitch: “Come play for us, we won’t just put ya in the League, we’ll put ya in the League’s biggest spectacle. See for yourself.”
OU’s Super Bowl overload helps just as much when Venables does what all coaches do right now – when he re-recruits.
Player retention is as important as player addition when it comes to the transfer portal. It is arguably more important since players whom coaches maintain are ingrained in the coaches’ schemes, terms and methods. The holdovers know their way around teammates’ skills and personalities on practice fields and in locker rooms.
The portal becomes a quick escape hatch for those antsy over anything from the depth chart to the position coach’s volume to the collective’s NIL commitment.
Venables has resisted players’ hair-triggered tendencies since his first spring as OU head coach when he said: “That has to be the glue to your whole locker room, that has to be a foundational piece to who you are, blue-collar work ethic, guys who love it, guys who are committed.”
Venables mentioned Johnson among those types of players from his time as an OU defensive assistant and said: “Every one of them will tell you all the adversity they went through during their careers. That’s such a cool thing for a coach to be just a small part of that journey and watch them mature. Every one of them had some dark, dirty moments down in the valley. But they also had some mountaintop experiences, and really it’s all of that.”
Johnson went from quarterback-turned-tight end OU redshirt in 2009 to defensive end in ‘10 to offensive tackle due to Jarvis Jones’ injury. He stuck there, then stuck with the Eagles, winning a 2018 Super Bowl title and just missing another in 2023.
Johnson played against Bell’s Chiefs last year. Bell’s Chiefs play against Willis’ 49ers Sunday.
Here’s what Bell encountered at OU: switching from pocket-passing four-star high school quarterback to short-yardage Belldozer, switching back to pocket-passing quarterback only to lose the race to start, becoming a starter due to Trevor Knight’s injury only to get injured himself and lose the job back to Knight, and then switching to tight end for his senior season of 2014.
Here’s how it went for Willis: special teams punt-blocker in 2018, part-time starting tight end/H-back in ‘19 and ‘20, most-of-the-time starter in ‘21, and pass-throwing, Wildcat-quarterbacking, otherwise-All-Big 12 inside receiver amid the change from Lincoln Riley to Venables in ‘22.
Bell has two Super Bowl rings. Willis might get one Sunday.
Winchester, the Chiefs’ long snapper, has two rings. He walked onto the Sooners as a receiver in 2008 but became a snapper due to Derek Shaw’s injury. He’s still at it.
These don’t have to be just display-case names in the Switzer Center. They can be real-life examples for the players running around the building now, who might hear voices about running off to another program when adversity strikes.
Johnson’s Eagles beat Geneo Grissom’s Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Grissom went from depth chart-buried defensive end at OU to tight end before the 2012 season, back to defensive end but also short-yardage tight end that year, to terrorizing pass rusher in the 2014 Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, to All-Big 12 linebacker as a senior.
Grissom’s Patriots beat Chris Chester’s Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Chester went from backup tight end who might catch a game-winning touchdown pass out of field goal formation his first four years at OU to starting center and guard in 2005. He didn’t stop playing offensive line and making a lot of money doing so until 2017.
Unlike with Grissom, Chester or several of these ex-Sooners, NIL lure and the portal’s ever-revolving door stack the deck against retention. Venables, like his peers, does what he can.
He reinforces/re-recruits as often as he can, saying things like this from the spring of ‘22: “It’s everything in between those moments that makes the journey what it is and helps develop you into the men that they’ve become.
“Those are dudes right there (Johnson among them) that we’re looking for, that kind of DNA. When we get that right, you recruit to that and you develop the ones that are there. You create buy-in. You fuel their voice of reason.”
It might be a new day with steeper challenges, but expect Venables to add all of OU’s Super Bowl alumni to his fuel, starting with those who stayed and emerged from their dark, dirty moments in the valley.