By Michael Kinney
“Protect your backyard” is a phrase that can mean a variety of things when it comes to sports.
When it comes to college football recruiting, the meaning is simple — don’t allow other programs to come into your state and steal prized talent. It’s considered a cardinal sin among some coaches and fan bases.
Developing relationships and spreading the love among in-state prospects is critical to the success of any program, a fact that Oklahoma coach Brent Venables is well aware of.
When Venables took over the program after the 2021 season, he made sure protecting the Sooners’ backyard a priority.
“You don’t see Rolls Royce commercials ever,” Venables said in 2021. “And I'm not saying this in an egotistical way, but Oklahoma and its rich history, tradition, success, takes a back seat to nobody. So we shouldn’t have to go across the country to the mega-camps where there’s 600 kids and 30 colleges.”
That has never been more apparent than the work he and his staff put in while assembling their 2024 recruiting class. Of the 27 total signees, six call the Sooner State home.
“It’s a feeling that I get with them that I don’t get with any other school,” said Devon Jordan, a 5-11, 170-pound defensive back from Tulsa Union. “One thing I always say is that I believe in people who believe in me, and they believe in me more than anyone else. Coach Venables is also a defensive coach, which is good for me. The defense for my class Coach Venables is bringing in is crazy so I can’t help but want to be a part of that. I also want to help them go into the SEC and represent my state.”
Along with Jordan, the in-state signees in the 2024 class include David Stone (6-4, 275, DL, Oklahoma City), Danny Okoye (6-4, 240, DL, Tulsa), Xavier Robinson (6-2, 220, RB, Yukon), Mykel Patterson-McDonald (5-10, 175, DB, Moore), and Josh Aisosa (6-4, 305, OL, Edmond).
That number increases when looking at the list of preferred walk-ons like quarterback Andy Bass (Oklahoma City), who turned down full rides at other Division I programs to have a chance to play for a program he hopes to one day see as a second family.
“That was big for me. (Coach Venables) actually Face Timed me and was talking about how he was kind of trying to build the family aspect and how people from the home state care about the program like no other,” said Bass. “So it means the world to me.”
While Bass, who played at Heritage Hall High School, always dreamed of playing for the Sooners, Danny Okoye was different. It took the 6-foot-5, 250-pound edge rusher from NOAH (Tulsa) time to understand just how crucial he would be to the program and what it would mean to stay home.
“I wasn’t even interested in OU at first,” said Okoye. “I saw that 6-7 season and it kind of made me look at them sideways. I’m not going to lie. But I really just gave them a chance, listened to what (defensive ends) Coach (Miguel) Chavis was selling. I understood that one bad season doesn’t make a program. There are a lot of factors that went into why they had the season that they had.
“Looking at this season, I see a big change.”
While Okoye had to be somewhat convinced, Patterson-McDonald knew right away it was going to be hard to turn down the Sooners. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound safety out of Westmoore High School was looking to follow in his family’s footsteps, and that meant staying home.
“As a kid, I always wanted to play college football. I knew what I wanted to do from the start after watching my dad and my uncles,” said Patterson-McDonald. “It means a lot because they did something good, but I'm going to do it just as good, if not better.”
Robinson, who was the top-rated tailback in the state, also saw the Sooners as his dream school. Even as the offers were piling up, his attention stayed in Norman.
“I always looked up to that school. That was an offer I was also waiting on,” said Robinson. “My family was really excited. It was really unbelievable getting an offer from my dream school. We were talking about it for like a week straight. Even when other offers came in that week we were still talking about OU.”
In the past, in-state recruits may have been taken for granted. It was believed that coaches could roll out an offer to them at any point and they could get the recruits to flip no matter how late in the process it was.
The current OU staff seems to be working with a different mindset. With Patterson-McDonald, Oklahoma showed they aren’t just reading through recruiting sites or following the action on social media. They were his first offer at any level and that meant a lot to him.
“There’s really no other place like Oklahoma,” said Aisosa, who starred at Edmond Santa Fe. “From the start, they’ve been treating me like family, and being there, I just knew that it was a place I wanted to be and needed to be. I didn’t know stuff like this was coming. Now that it’s here, it feels great. I can go to one of the top schools in the country.”
Of OU’s 27 newest signees, close to 20 of them joined the team as early enrollees in January, including Aisosa, Okoye, Robinson and Stone.
(This story appears in the January-February 2024 issue of Sooner Spectator.)