Oklahoma is coming off a disappointing (?) 2021 season that was supposed to end in a national title but ended at the Alamo Bowl with an 11-2 record and no Big 12 title for the first time in six years.
How can 11-2 be disappointing you ask? Well, look at it this way. Alabama, the national runner-up in 2021, sent 11 players to the NFL Combine. Oklahoma, who didn’t even make the Big 12 Championship, sent 11 players to the combine.
The Sooners have had a massive amount of turnover on both the roster and coaching staff, most notably head coach Lincoln Riley, quarterback Caleb Williams, and a slew of defensive playmakers. Now, under first-time head coach Brent Venables, the Sooners will try to get back to where they feel they belong: atop the pecking order in the Big 12 conference.
Here are three things to watch as the Sooners get Spring practice underway on March 22nd.
How Quickly Can Brent Venables Fix the Defense?
Brent Venables has been known for one thing over the decades: strong and aggressive defenses. He brings an intensity to Norman that has been nonexistent for several seasons. The Sooners have fielded some of the worst defenses in school history since Venables left after the 2011 season, but he is back and will certainly make some improvements on his side of the ball. Now, as with all things, it’s going to take time to turn Oklahoma into a defensive power as it was in the early 2000s, but the clock is already ticking. Expect Oklahoma to implement a versatile scheme defensively, as Venables has proven not to be confined to one system. BV has cranked up the intensity and passion at OU in just a few months’ time, and when the Sooners put pads on at the end of March, it will not look like anything we have seen in recent years. It may not happen right away, but before long you will see a “physical, punishing, relentless, suffocating defense” in Norman once again.
What Kind of Impact Does Jerry Schmidt Make this Spring?
Oklahoma just hasn’t been the same since Lincoln Riley chose not to retain strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt in 2017. Oklahoma was known for its toughness and brutality in the trenches, mostly credited to Schmidt’s offseason programs that were made to turn boys into men. Instead, Bennie Wylie was brought in and implemented a “new age” of physical performance, something that seemingly took the “nasty” out of Oklahoma’s offensive and defensive lines. Now, with the Riley regime gone, “Smitty” is back and is already making a difference. In simple terms, mass moves mass, and Oklahoma has been on the lighter end of the scale. Those days are long gone, as the O-Line and D-Line will once again start to look like their future counterparts in the SEC. It’s no coincidence that Schmidt was with Texas A&M when their play in the trenches made vast improvements. Look for the same type of changes to take place in Norman, starting this spring.
Who Emerges as Oklahoma’s Primary Weapon on Offense?
Former UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel is a proven passer and certainly has the skills to distribute the ball to playmakers all over the field. The question is, who are the playmakers? Sure, Marvin Mims can be penciled in as WR1, but behind him there are questions. Theo Wease certainly has the talent to establish himself as one of the top receivers in the Big 12, but injuries have been his biggest enemy. Jahlil Farooq and Cody Jackson are two uber-talented pass catchers that have yet to make much of an impact, but they’ve barely had an opportunity to do so. Perhaps the biggest question is who will tote the rock for OU. Eric Gray was underwhelming in a small sample size last season, but he has the tools to be a dangerous back. Marcus Major is someone who was thought to be on the cusp of a breakout in 2021, but missed half the season due to classroom issues. Incoming freshmen Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk are both immediate impact players if they can pick up Jeff Lebby’s system quickly, but that is a tall task. OU has the talent at skill positions, it’s just a matter of finding the right combination.