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Why Brent Venables believes NIL deals 'shouldn't be the focus' for OU football players, recruits

NORMAN — The game has changed.

The Oklahoma football team proved to be a major player during the NCAA's early signing period on Wednesday. Led by the recruiting efforts of first-year head coach Brent Venables, the Sooners signed a 2022 class of 13 players that is ranked 10th in the nation by 247Sports.

It takes quite the pitch to recruit such a successful class, and part of that selling point is the marketing opportunity for a student-athlete. With players now able to profit off their name image and likeness (NIL), a university's ability to provide a commercial-friendly platform plays a major role in the decision process.

When asked about how big of a role the NIL rule change played in the recruiting of OU's 2022 class on Wednesday, Venables downplayed its importance.

"I believe you need to use (NIL) to your advantage in every way you possibly can within the rules," Venables said. "But that shouldn’t be the focus of your program. We want to attract players and families that want all of it — the holistic piece.

"If (NIL) is where all the focus is, then maybe those values don’t align."

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OU football coach Brent Venables (right) speaks with former linebacker Caleb Kelly on Dec. 6 in Norman.

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It's difficult for recruits and transfers to not consider NIL implications when looking at OU. Perhaps no other university in the country has embraced the rule change as much as Oklahoma.

After announcing a partnership with INFLCR, a compliance software platform that helps build personal brands of student-athletes, in July, OU continued to break ground in the new landscape.

In conjunction with INFLCR, Oklahoma launched a platform on Dec. 1 called OU Exchange. The free service allows businesses and student-athletes to connect directly, and a payment processing tool is included upon the finalization of an NIL deal.

“We always value being a first mover; innovative. proactive," OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said in a statement. "Especially when it comes to positioning our program, our coaches, our student-athletes for success. This is exciting because now we have our own system that we can position our student-athletes for success."

OU's student-athletes have taken advantage of the NIL rule change since its implementation on June 30.

Former OU starting quarterback Spencer Rattler benefitted from the name, image and likeness rule this season.

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Former starting quarterback Spencer Rattler secured multiple deals throughout this season, including one with Fowler Automotive that netted him a pair of vehicles. Rattler received a 2021 Ram TRX and a 2021 Widebody Charger Scat Pack, which boast a combined manufacturer's suggested retail price of $114,065.

Rattler proved to be one of the most marketable players in the country before losing his starting job to Caleb Williams, but there were plenty of opportunities to go around in Norman. Numerous OU football players, including Isaiah Thomas, Caleb Kelly, Kennedy Brooks and Marcus Hicks, released their own clothing lines during the season.

The NIL world even had an impact on other members of the Venables family. Tyler Venables, a sophomore safety for Clemson and the OU coach's son, partnered with Go Puff, a service that delivers snacks and groceries.

"I'm all for players that have the opportunity to have the brand, if you will," Venables said. "They have the stage. They have those opportunities to create maybe a short-term, better quality of life for both them and/or their families. I don't see anything wrong with that."

While Venables is a supporter of individual brands for his players, he still believes the game of football shouldn't take a backseat.

If that is the case for a potential recruit or transfer target, Venables isn't afraid to move on to the next prospect.

"If (NIL) is the decision-maker, if that’s what breaks the camel’s back so to speak, there are plenty of great players that stand for what we value the most," Venables said. "That's education, holistic development, an opportunity to be successful, to be in a winning locker room and winning environment and be challenged in every part of their life."

Justin Martinez can be reached at jmartinez@oklahoman.com or @JTheSportsDude on Twitter. Make sure to subscribe to The Oklahoman to stay up to date with all local sports.