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March 20, 2012While many are celebrating the return of Mike Stoops to the Oklahoma program, the loss of long-time defensive coordinator Brent Venables can't be dismissed through the first two weeks of spring practice.
Venables had his critics as he tried putting together standout defenses in the offensive heavy Big 12 Conference. But his departure to Clemson does weigh heavy on those players he was closest to during his time in Norman - his linebackers.
"I still have conversations with him regularly, try to find out how he's doing out there at Clemson," said middle linebacker and three-year starter, Tom Wort. "We stay in touch. Once a week probably."
Those that have known Venables as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Oklahoma since 1999, find it hard to see him in Orange. Venables showed so much passion for Oklahoma's crimson and cream on gamedays, on the practice field and on the recruiting trail, it seemed like OU was just a part of him.
Away from the microphones, Venables wasn't one to shy away from cracking jokes about the Sooners' rivals clad in orange, Texas and Oklahoma State.
And who really knows how many orange jokes were told over the years inside the Switzer Center offices and meeting rooms?
Wort says he still gives him a hard time about putting on that color every day for work.
"I saw a picture of him wearing purple and orange, and I actually sent him a text," he recalled. "I took a picture and I said, I don't know about those colors. I gave him a hard time about it. He said, 'Yeah, I feel ya. I'm trying to get used to them, too."
With Wort and Venables being so close, there was never that shocking moment during Clemson's courting of OU's defensive coordinator. That's one of the blessing s of how it all went down for Wort.
"We talked throughout the process," he said. "I said whatever's best for him and his family. I know all of his family members. I've been close with them for a couple years. We had barbecues over there with teammates. He got to know us all on a personal level.
"Ever since I showed up there were rumors that Kansas State was looking at him. I understood that. It's part of coaching. You have to leave at times. We had a discussion. I have no hard feelings. He's doing what's best for him and his family. I can't hold that against him."
Now that the Sooners have been through two weeks of spring practices, Wort and the rest of the linebacking corps have been able to start the process of moving on with new linebacker coach Tim Kish as their leader.
It's a strange transition at times for OU's players. Venables was as fiery and as animated as you can be on a football field. As much as Venables runs up and down the sideline barking at players during games, he's even more intense coaching his linebackers in practice.
"He's a lot more laid-back on the field," said Wort of Kish. "You still have to account for all of your mistakes. He's watching every play. If you make a mistake, he's gonna let you know about it. He's gonna make adjustments to the depth chart based on how you perform. You don't take being more quiet on the field for granted. He's stern in what he does. We all respect him."
If Sooner fans are concerned about a drop in intensity, don't be. Wort says Mike Stoops can bring that trademark Venables fire back to life. He can bring it back quickly.
"Coach Stoops brings the same sort of (Venables) attitude as the defensive coordinator. It's been different. It's not quite as loud on the field. But Coach Stoops will get onto you the same way."
Wort's biggest concern right now, outside of everyone learning the subtle changes defensively, is to re-establish himself as a leader. With the loss of Travis Lewis, Wort was in line to become the next face of the linebacking corps under Venables.
As already written, those two shared a strong bond. Wort was becoming an extension of Venables on the field.
Now he's starting all over to win over Kish as his go-to guy.
"It definitely shook things up," he said. "You have to re-establish yourself at your position. When new coaches come in, they don't know what you've done before. They're gonna go on what they see. Not what they've been told. Everyone has to re-establish themselves. Going through spring practice, it doesn't take long to figure who is playing the best."
Right now, that's been Wort.
Wort has been practicing and going full speed this spring, even though he has to put on a boot to walk out of OU's facility every day after severely spraining his ankle this offseason.
If you ask Mike Stoops, Wort's concerns about maintaining his spot as one of Oklahoma's top defenders, and leaders, are being washed away after each practice they spend with the talented linebacker.
"Tom, you feel his presence on the field," he said. "I think any leader, any great player, you feel him on the field and you really don't worry about them. They're very easy to coach and I think our players know what they're getting. They're getting maximum effort from a guy like that every time he steps on the field.
"He's got to work on things like everybody else. He's a guy we've got to get healthy and ready to go because he can be a difference maker for us inside."
Just one more complement from Wort's new staff for him to pass along to Venables when they talk again next week.