Sooners Set at QB, Transfer Portal Proves Productive
John E. Hoover
NORMAN – After an initial offseason of buildup and anticipation and probably unrealistic expectations, the Oklahoma Sooners stumbled often through Brent Venables’ first season.
Now that Venables has officially hit the reset button for Year Two, what’s the upside for 2023?
There has been little tumult since OU came home from the Cheez-It Bowl with its first losing record since 1998. Venables’ first season produced a 6-7 record — well off the standard his old boss, Bob Stoops, set in 18 seasons at the helm, and certainly well off what Stoops’ predecessor, Lincoln Riley, did in his five years.
But Venables’ rebuild continues, with 53 of the 76 players he inherited in December 2021 no longer in Norman when the current offseason began. That, Venables said, is a “massive rebuild.”
And with that rebuild come more expectations.
The schedule got markedly easier, as the Sooners added three of the Big 12’s four newcomers (UCF, BYU and Cincinnati) while dropping Baylor, Kansas State and Texas Tech — three opponents that beat OU last year, and two that had become something of a bitter pill for the crimson and cream.
Despite the compounding defeats and significant stretches of bad football, the Sooners weren’t that far off in Venables’ first season. There were five games Oklahoma dropped by just one score last year, four by the margin of a single field goal. Two — blowouts at TCU and the following week against Texas — were administered without their starting quarterback.
Now the quarterback situation appears more stable — Dillon Gabriel is back as the starter, and 5-star recruit Jackson Arnold is the backup — and the schedule is less treacherous.
The transfer portal seems to have been productive for the Sooners, especially across the defensive line. The recruiting class ranked No. 5 nationally, according to 247 Sports, and should produce immediate fruit. The speed at wide receiver has been upgraded. The running backs look like they fit the scheme. The linebackers are more athletic. The secondary is more explosive and more experienced.
The real significant offseason news for the program was the decision in February (and confirmation in May) that the Sooners would join the SEC a year early, 2024 instead of 2025. That’s a topic for down the road, of course, but Venables is ready to meet it head-on when it gets here.
“No need to run from those questions,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be great for Oklahoma, but our focus and our football team’s focus is the Big 12. We have to get better and that’s where our focus is. We have to get better to compete in this league before we can worry about the SEC. That will be here soon enough.”
That was evident throughout last season, when the Sooners couldn’t close out five games and ended up with more losses than Stoops or Riley’s squads ever did. Whether it was making a late field goal in a three-point game or getting a stop on defense to get the ball back or picking up just one more first down to keep the ball away from the opponent, Venables’ inaugural Oklahoma squad didn’t have what it takes to close out a tight victory.
That’s where he has put much of his focus this offseason, getting bigger, stronger, more experienced down linemen from the transfer portal, and getting more athletic wideouts and defensive backs from the recruiting trail.
It’s in recruiting where Venables’ lone staff hire has shown up the most in new wide receivers coach Emmett Jones. Venables dismissed long-time Sooner Cale Gundy amid controversy last year at the start of training camp, and filled that immediate opening with young offensive analyst L’Damian Washington. Now, with Jones’ vast experience as a recruiter in Texas and as a coach at Kansas and Texas Tech, Venables has the staff he wanted.
Other than some of his early recruiting victories, Jones’ first task is to help offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby create more consistency in the passing game by upgrading some of the nuances of the wideout position. That will help Gabriel become a more consistent quarterback, and that will help the running game and ultimately the defense.
Marvin Mims was finally given a canvas on which he could work last season, and he produced his first 1,000-yard campaign as a Sooner. Now, Mims is in the NFL and wideout is the team’s greatest position of uncertainty.
Drake Stoops and Jalil Farooq are the most experienced receivers, with a combined 79 catches for 854 yards and eight touchdowns last season. But no other wideouts contributed much through the air, and Jones will be looking hard at Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, who competed in the spring, and Texas transfer Brenen Thompson, who arrived during the summer. J.J. Hester and LV Bunkley-Shelton, a pair of 2022 transfers, will also get a good look. Former walk-on Gavin Freeman should have a bigger role, and sophomores Nic Anderson and Jayden Gibson have shown plenty of promise and potential but need to be productive on the field. Also, converted cornerback D.J. Graham will get a chance to prove himself at wide receiver this year.
With a little more consistency at receiver, Gabriel could shine under Lebby. He had a good year statistically after transferring from UCF, completing 63 percent of his passes for 3,163 yards and 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions. But Gabriel acknowledges his mechanics were occasionally off as he reunited with Lebby and was asked to help teach the offense to his teammates, and he occasionally missed wide open receivers for big gains or important conversions. Those became huge plays in seemingly each of the close losses. Gabriel’s health remains paramount — his value was shown in losses of 55-24 and 49-0 last year in the Metroplex — but the QB room is brighter this year with the addition of Arnold, the 5-star recruit from Denton, TX, who upgrades the backup situation but is still young and would need time to grow into any extended role.
If the wide receivers don’t come along and the passing game still hits the occasional pothole, expect more catches from Joe Jon Finley’s tight end position. Brayden Willis is NFL-bound after a breakout senior year, but Austin Stogner is back from his one-year visit to South Carolina and could become a downfield favorite of Gabriel. The tight ends were featured in the spring game, with Texas A&M transfer Blake Smith and Cameron University transfer Josh Fanuiel — a converted Division II basketball player — catching touchdowns. Sophomores Jason Llewellyn and Kaden Helms are both coming off offseason surgery and may need more time to get well.
The running game should be in good hands under DeMarco Murray as sophomore Jovantae Barnes and redshirt freshman Gavin Sawchuk were outstanding against Florida State in the bowl game. Both surpassed 100 yards rushing — Sawchuk in his first real action of his college career — and are explosive, mature runners. The Sooners also upgraded the athletic ability in the backfield with freshmen Kalib Hicks and Daylan Smothers enrolling early and having a productive spring. Also, senior Marcus Major is back and could be in line for a solid senior year.
The health of the running game hinges, of course, on the offensive line, and Bill Bedenbaugh’s group has undergone significant changes. Starting tackles Anton Harrison and Wanya Morris declared early and were drafted, and three-year starting guard Chris Murray graduated. That leaves center Andrew Raym and left guard McKade Mettauer as the lone returnees, although right tackle Tyler Guyton — a TCU transfer and occasional starter last year — could have one side locked down, and left tackle Walter Rouse — a four-year starter at Stanford — may have the other. Other options at tackle include bowl starter Jacob Sexton (he’s coming off a knee injury) and fourth-year junior Aaryn Parks (who replaced Sexton on the first series against FSU and played well). Watch out for talented freshman Cayden Green, too — he started at left tackle in the spring game and is one of nine OU rookies who earned high school All-America honors.
At guard, third-year sophomore Savion Byrd dropped 30 pounds and got the start in the spring game, but Bedenbaugh has plenty of options, including sophomore Jake Taylor and transfer Caleb Shaffer, a four-year starter at Miami, OH. Bedenbaugh needed just a little more, though, so he reached into the portal in June and landed Troy Everett, a freshman All-American last year at Appalachian State.
As much as the o-line has changed, it’s Venables’ defense that almost looks like an entirely new unit.
Danny Stutsman is back at inside linebacker after leading the Big 12 and ranking in the top five nationally in total tackles. Stutsman emerged as the face of the OU defense over the course of the 2022 season, and his progress from September to November was pronounced.
And while there have been talent upgrades all around Stutsman via the portal and recruiting, there are a lot of new faces that will be making a big transition for the Sooners in 2023.
That’s most apparent up front, where Notre Dame transfer Jacob Lacey, Oklahoma State transfer Trace Ford, Wake Forest transfer Rondell Bothroyd and Texas State transfer Davon Sears all got important snaps in spring practice for edge coach Miguel Chavis and tackles coach Todd Bates. But those additions weren’t enough for Venables, who added Tennessee transfer Da’Jon Terry to the roster in June.
They’ll join returning starters Reggie Grimes and Ethan Downs at defensive end, and former junior college transfer Isaiah Coe at nose tackle, as well as seniors Jordan Kelley, Marcus Stripling and Jonah Laulu, sophomores R Mason Thomas, Gracen Halton and Kelvin Gilliam, and 5-star freshman edge P.J. Adebawore.
The Sooners lost six defensive linemen to the portal, but corners coach Jay Valai and safeties coach Brandon Hall actually lost seven total defensive backs — and still feel like they’ve upgraded. That’s because of the addition of an established talent like Reggie Pearson, a former starter at Wisconsin and Texas Tech, to the safety position, and a promising young star like Peyton Bowen, a 5-star safety from Denton, TX (high school teammates and best pals with Arnold), who spurned Notre Dame and Oregon on signing day to come to OU. Adding juco All-American Kendel Dolby from NEO is a boost, as was bringing in hard-hitting freshmen Makari Vickers and Jasiah Wagoner.
Those newcomers join returning starters Woodi Washington at cornerback, and Billy Bowman and Key Lawrence at safety. Sophomore Robert Spears-Jennings was having a very promising spring before an injury set him back, but he’s expected to return soon, as was sophomore corner Gentry Williams. Sophomore Jayden Rowe could be in line for more consistent playing time as well, and 2022 Louisville transfer Kani Walker still seems on the doorstep of breaking into the lineup.
Ted Roof’s linebacker corps also suffered some personnel setbacks, but as Stutsman goes, OU’s defense should follow. If the Sooners’ offense could pick up more third-down conversions, or if the defense could get off the field more consistently, Stutsman wouldn’t need to lead the league in tackles, and wouldn’t need to play every snap. Still, all that action was good for Stutsman: once his recognition and reaction caught up with his enthusiasm and athleticism, he became an elite linebacker.
Four-year starter DaShaun White graduated, and two-year starter David Ugwoegbu transferred. Still, Venables sees an upgrade coming as Dasan McCullough brings his 6-foot-5, 222-pound frame and freshman All-America credentials from Indiana to man Venables’ hybrid “cheetah” linebacker position. Jaren Kanak, the backup cheetah last year behind White, had several breakout moments as a true freshman and seems to have inherited the other inside linebacker spot. Sophomores Kobie McKinzie and Kip Lewis stepped up in the spring and could step into what was a painfully thin rotation last season. And big, fast Justin Harrington, a former juco All-America defensive back, seems like an ideal fit for the cheetah spot with Kanak. And for good measure (and good depth), Venables added a June transfer in Konnor Near, who helped Ferris State go 14-1 and win the Division II National Championship last year.
There are more changes coming on special teams, where analyst Jay Nunez has taken on a larger role. Gone is all-conference punter Michael Turk, replaced by two-time All-MAC punter Luke Elzinga, although there should still be competition from former Arizona State transfer Josh Plaster. Zach Schmit handled all the kicking duties last year and was good on kickoffs but missed one-third of his field goals and could be pushed for playing time this season. The return game is months away from being decided, but Venables made it clear last year, he’ll not devalue kickoff and punt returns like Riley did.
But whether it’s fourth-quarter field goals or missed tackles, overthrows by the quarterback or head-shaking decisions by the coaching staff, Venables knows the whole product needs to be much better this year than it was in 2022.
The transition period is real. The Sooners welcomed 26 newcomers in the spring, and another dozen in the summer.
“And a few new coaches,” Venables said. “You know, obviously self-scouting, studying other people, finding ways that we can be better on and off the field efficiency-wise, making the improvement where we need to, taking a good hard look at ourselves and then building our players from a strength and conditioning standpoint, speed standpoint — all the while developing the right kind of mindset and getting our players a very clear vision of what it takes to be successful.
“Really excited about this group of guys. There’s a hunger and an edge to them. Great, great humility. Willingness to work and do the hard things that we asked them to, and have really, really responded in a big-time way.”