A new era of Oklahoma football begins on Tuesday with the opening of spring practice under new coach Brent Venables. As expected with a new head coach, numerous changes are in store for the Sooners. The offense is led by new play-caller Jeff Lebby, who arrives at his alma mater after spending the last two seasons at Ole Miss. It’s assumed Venables will play a heavy role in the defensive scheming and play-calling, but Ted Roof, Jay Valai and Todd Bates hold the co-coordinator roles.
Although significant changes are underway in Norman, the Sooners still return enough pieces to contend for the Big 12 title. Nine starters are back for ’22, but Venables dipped into the portal for help on both sides of the ball. Transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel is expected to replace Caleb Williams under center, and reinforcements are en route to fortify a defense likely to improve under Venables’ direction.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oklahoma's Spring Practices
1. Get Dillon Gabriel Comfortable
Oklahoma’s quarterback room took a massive hit for ’22 when Spencer Rattler transferred to South Carolina and Caleb Williams left for USC. However, the staff successfully went into the portal for help, as Gabriel’s previous experience under Lebby should make for a seamless transition. In three years at UCF, Gabriel threw for 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns to only 14 interceptions. He also averaged 8.8 yards per attempt from 2019-21 and connected on 42 completions of 40-plus yards over the last two seasons. Gabriel has to adjust to a higher level of play and talent in the Big 12, but the familiarity in scheme and performance at UCF suggests this should be an easy transition. This spring is all about getting the Hawaii native comfortable in his new surroundings.
2. Figure Out Things Up Front
The play in the trenches wasn’t quite up to the usual high standards at Oklahoma last season. The Sooners allowed 33 sacks, which was the most by the team since 2015 (41). Also, the offense managed 168.6 rushing yards in conference play and posted five efforts of less than 200 rushing yards in Big 12 action. Starters Marquis Hayes (left guard) and Tyrese Robinson (right tackle) won’t return for ’22, but three proven cogs – left tackle Anton Harrison, center Andrew Raym and right guard Chris Murray – are back. However, Hayes and Robinson were the only players to garner at least honorable mention all-conference honors last season. Can line coach Bill Bedenbaugh find the right mix this spring? California transfer McKade Mettauer could fill Hayes’ void at left guard, while Savion Byrd, Wanya Morris and Aaryn Parks are names to watch at tackle. Could Bedenbaugh shuffle some players around to find the right five?
3. Restock the Supporting Cast
The question marks on the supporting cast for Gabriel isn’t limited only to the offensive line. Leading rusher Kennedy Brooks left for the NFL, meaning Eric Gray (412 yards) and Marcus Major (83) will have to take on a larger role in the backfield this fall. Incoming freshmen Gavin Sawchuk and Jovantae Barnes should also factor into the mix for carries. On the outside, three of the team’s top four receivers – Michael Woods, Jadon Haselwood and Mario Williams – departed. Leading receiver Marvin Mims (32 catches) is back, with Drake Stoops (16), Theo Wease, Jalil Farooq, Cody Jackson and Brian Darby headlining the list of other options. Lebby could also look to the incoming freshman class for help.
4. Reload the Defensive Line
The arrival of Venables and a revamped defensive staff should pay off immediately on defense for the Sooners. Venables was arguably the nation’s top defensive coordinator at Clemson and consistently developed standout fronts that thrived at getting to the quarterback and creating havoc around the line of scrimmage. Oklahoma showed some progress on this side of the ball under the former staff but took a step back last fall, allowing 5.93 yards per play and 28 points a game in Big 12 contests. This unit ranked third in the conference (league-only games) versus the run, but key cogs in Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and rush end Nik Bonitto are off to the next level. In addition to the personnel losses, Venables could deploy more four-man fronts after this group started three linemen last season. Tackle Jalen Redmond should be a big part of the revamped unit, and transfers Jeffery Johnson (Tulane) and Jonah La’ulu (Hawaii) will push for a starting role or as part of the depth up front. Also, returners in Reggie Grimes, Marcus Stripling, Jordan Kelley and Josh Ellison are in the mix for jobs.
5. Improvement in the Secondary
Addressing the secondary is the top priority for Venables this spring. Oklahoma ranked seventh in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and allowed quarterbacks to complete 65.8 percent of throws last year. Opponents also connected on 19 throws of 30-plus yards. Portal help is on the way in the form of CJ Coldon (CB), Kani Walker (CB), and Trey Morrison (safety) to add depth and competition for starting jobs with experienced returners at cornerback in D.J. Graham, Woodi Washington and Jaden Davis, with Key Lawrence penciled in at a safety spot after the departure of Patrick Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell. Billy Bowman and Justin Broiles return at nickel.
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