Oklahoma's winter spun into turmoil. Then torment. And finally … transition. Could triumph be next? Maybe. Maybe not.
Honestly, what's next is anybody's guess, amid a complete makeover of staff and roster. Sure, there are still plenty of brave faces around Norman after Lincoln Riley bolted the Sooners for USC, leaving fans feeling jilted and in denial over a coach leaving them, voluntarily, for the first time since Chuck Fairbanks jumped to the NFL in 1973.
Players hit the exits, too, including star quarterback Caleb Williams, joining Riley with the Trojans no less, one of eight transfers becoming ex-Sooners among 14 total starters lost.
Oklahoma leaned into its past, bringing back former coordinator Brent Venables for his long-awaited first go as a head coach. The Sooners tapped into the transfer portal, too, adding 10 players. There's reason for optimism. And pessimism. Which one will prevail?
Previewing Oklahoma's Offense for 2022
The Sooners actually lost two former starting quarterbacks to the portal, with Spencer Rattler heading to South Carolina ahead of Williams joining the Trojans. Rattler was a Heisman favorite entering the 2021 season before losing his job to Williams, who headlines Heisman watch lists for 2022. That's serious star power.
Oklahoma hopes it struck big itself, luring Dillon Gabriel from UCF, where he passed for 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns in two-plus seasons.
New Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby worked with Gabriel at UCF in 2019, so there's a clear connection — and appreciation — between the two. And Gabriel is a good fit to usher in Lebby's up-tempo offense.
"(Dillon) wants to get better," says Lebby, who spent the past two seasons at Ole Miss. "Good's not good enough. He understands that. He's been a lot of fun getting back with."
Fair or unfair, Gabriel will undoubtedly be compared to Williams by fans and media, even if the offense's success doesn't rely solely on him.
And there's much to sort out around him. The offensive line returns three starters, albeit from a unit that surrendered 33 sacks a year ago. The group should be bolstered by Cal transfer McKade Mettauer, a second-team All-Pac-12 pick a year ago by PFF, although depth is slim.
Running back Eric Gray was solid yet unspectacular after transferring from Tennessee. Marcus Major moves into the mix, and look out for freshman Jovantae Barnes.
The receiving corps needs to elevate its play, especially with the departure via transfer of Jadon Haselwood (Arkansas) and Mario Williams (USC). Marvin Mims is a big-play receiver (22 ypr last season) who hasn't yet established himself as a go-to guy. Six others expected to play key roles combined for 29 catches in 2021. Also, Arizona State transfer LV Bunkley-Shelton committed to the team after spring practice.
There is optimism for an impact return of former five-star recruit Theo Wease from a serious foot injury that kept him out all of last season. "I'm 100 percent confident going into this season," Wease says. "I'll give you a scale from 1 to 10. … I'd probably say 11."
Previewing Oklahoma's Defense for 2022
Venables brought successful veteran coach and new defensive coordinator Ted Roof with him from Clemson, giving the Sooners a unified approach to what's been billed as a complex defense. The system, however, is tried, tested and proven. Now to implement it, which will require mixing a group with limited experience with some key transfers.
Linebacker DaShaun White returns as a fixture and a link to Oklahoma's past and present. The rugged White finished third on the team with 66 tackles a year ago and figures to play a captain's role with this team.
Beyond White, there are plenty of defenders who have contributed, yet few who have starred, with the unit's other three regulars spread out among tackle Jalen Redmond, end Reggie Grimes and cornerback D.J. Graham.
Jeffery Johnson, a four-year starter at Tulane, arrives to plug a hole up front with his physical style in the middle. Trey Morrison made 41 starts at North Carolina and should play a key role in the secondary. Cornerback C.J. Coldon started across four seasons at Wyoming, and linebacker T.D. Roof — Ted's son — is at his fourth school after arriving from Appalachian State.
The opportunity exists for several defenders to make their move and their mark. And there are as many players with the credentials and the hype. Some Sooners say that the culture has changed for the better, although that's not uncommon to hear following a coaching change, especially one as controversial as Riley's departure.
Related: Big 12 2022 All-Conference Team
Previewing Oklahoma's Specialists for 2022
The Sooners are calling on Zach Schmit to follow Gabe Brkic, one of the nation's top field-goal kickers the past three years. Michael Turk resumes the punting chores after posting the second-best FBS average per kick (51.2). Mims has game-breaking potential in the return game, while speedy and elusive receiver Jalil Farooq is another option.
It took a while for Venables to find the right head-coaching fit, and it's one he's familiar with. His fiery style has galvanized fans and players alike. Oklahoma recruits top talent, and there's plenty on hand, but Venables' major task will be bringing everyone and everything together.
If the old Sooner Magic returns, OU could push its way into the CFP conversation. If last year's Sooner stumbles continue, there could be much grumbling in Norman.
National Ranking: 13
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