There’s a lot of pressure on Oklahoma this year — more than the program has felt in a while. That’s because the Sooners finished 6-7 in head coach Brent Venables’ first season, the program’s most losses since 1998, the year before Bob Stoops was hired.
It’s also Oklahoma’s final season playing in the Big 12 before moving to the SEC with Texas in 2024, and it certainly doesn’t want to leave the league it’s owned for 20-plus years on a sour note. It’s a strange feeling to see OU in this position. Stoops created a juggernaut and Lincoln Riley kept things rolling with no drop-off. But when he left for USC, Riley took Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Mario Williams with him, leaving the next staff in a lurch.
Venables sucked it up and made it through Year 1. Heading into 2023, he’s taken advantage of the transfer portal — especially so on defense, which finished last season ranked No. 122 out of 131 teams. It was an uncomfortable place for a defensive guru like Venables, as his unit gave up 461 yards and 30 points per game.
While OU has lost some of the best talent it had, including leading receiver Marvin Mims Jr., leading rusher Eric Gray and top tight end Brayden Willis, it gets veteran quarterback Dillon Gabriel back. Even with Oklahoma’s lousy season, Gabriel was the second-most productive quarterback in the Big 12 (behind Spencer Sanders, who transferred from Oklahoma State to Ole Miss) and his experience will be critical to OU’s success in 2023.
With all of that in mind, here are a few storylines surrounding the Sooners as they begin spring ball.
Is Brent Venables the right guy for this job?
For years Venables was annually the most popular name in the coaching carousel. He was happy in his position as defensive coordinator at Clemson, where he and Dabo Swinney led the Tigers to two national championship victories against Alabama in 2016 and ‘18. It was always going to take the perfect job for him to leave.
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Oklahoma was — is — that job. Venables’ career started in the Big 12. He played linebacker at Kansas State before coaching at his alma mater for six seasons and was later hired at OU as its defensive coordinator and associate head coach under Stoops. OU was the dream scenario for the nation’s most prized coordinator.
But then his first season in 2022 was a disaster. This included a 31-point loss to TCU the week before a historic 49-0 shellacking by Texas in the Red River Showdown. It was the program’s worst loss in the history of the rivalry. To finish things off, the Sooners ended the season with a narrow 35-32 loss to Florida State in the Cheez-It Bowl.
It’s silly to think Venables’ head could be on the chopping block after one bad year. Even Stoops had a few bad seasons in Norman, including his first two. But there’s a significant amount of pressure on Venables in Year 2 to turn things around, especially before the Sooners join the SEC.
With a top-five recruiting class for 2023 and the Big 12’s most productive returning quarterback, are things looking up for Venables and the Sooners this year?
Dillon Gabriel integral to OU’s success
For as crummy as Oklahoma’s season was in 2022, Gabriel was the bright spot. The rising senior completed more than 60% of his passes for 3,168 yards with 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He did miss one game — the painful loss to Texas — with an injury. But he’s the Big 12’s top returning quarterback for 2023 and nobody would be surprised if he somehow willed the Sooners to a conference title.
Gabriel has experience now after one season working with offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, with whom he has a tight-knit relationship. Gabriel understands the offense, can bring younger playmakers along, and will provide that leadership and stability for an offensive line that lost three starters to the NFL, including potential first-round pick Anton Harrison.
OU’s offense wasn’t the problem last year — Gabriel led a unit that ranked 13th nationally in total offense and scored 32.8 PPG. Compare that to a defense that gave up 30 PPG. While Gabriel is not the same caliber as some recent star quarterbacks at Oklahoma, like Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts and Williams, he’s still a veteran guy who can help set the program up for success and get it out of its current funk.
Waiting in the wings is five-star QB Jackson Arnold, who has enrolled early and is expected to be the next big thing in Norman. Rated the No. 4 quarterback in the country, Arnold was also the Gatorade National Player of the Year and held the Sooners’ 2023 class together after Riley left for L.A.
Dillon Gabriel to Jalil Farooq
Oklahoma Sooners may have seen a glimpse of their future on this play against Iowa State last season.
But who will Gabriel give the ball to?
All this talk about Gabriel, but what we don’t really know is who’ll catch his passes. His top playmakers left for the NFL, so it’s going to take working overtime with younger, less experienced guys to get this offense clicking and scoring lots of points.
Guys to keep an eye on include Jalil Farooq, a rising junior receiver who finished fourth on the team last season behind Mims, Willis and Drake Stoops with 37 catches for 466 yards and five touchdowns. The former four-star recruit is 6-foot-1, 203, and started nine games last year. The Sooners also got some help from the transfer portal, snagging Michigan receiver Andrel Anthony, who could make an immediate impact.
Fans should also be excited about running back Jovantae Barnes. His name might be more familiar, as the rising sophomore was the No. 2 rusher behind Gray last season with 519 yards and five touchdowns. When Gray opted to sit out of the Cheez-It Bowl, Barnes, who is slightly bigger than his predecessor, stepped up and ran for 108 yards and a touchdown in the loss to FSU.
Regardless of who shines this spring, the most important thing here is that the Sooners have Gabriel to lead the way.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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