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College Football Preview 2022: 10. Oklahoma Sooners

Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma 

10. Oklahoma Sooners

Plenty of offseason changes brings uncertainty, but the Sooners remain the best bet in the wide-open Big 12

2021 Review
Winners of six straight Big 12 Titles and led by the Heisman preseason favorite, expectations were high once again in Norman entering 2021. In fact, a certain someone (me) was such a believer in the Sooners, they were my National Champion pick. The performance in the season opener against Tulane, a 40-35 victory against a middle-of-the-pack AAC team, was not only disappointing, but a sign of things to come. The Sooners won close game after close game before the "Red River Showdown" forced Lincoln Riley to make a change, benching Spencer Rattler in favor of true freshman Caleb Williams. Williams made his presence felt quickly, leading Oklahoma to a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Texas, cementing himself as the starter the rest of the way. Naturally, there were growing pains; after blowing out TCU in Williams' first collegiate start, the Sooner offense sputtered in the season's first loss to Baylor. They rebounded by beating Iowa State, but were on the other side of a comeback in the "Bedlam" loss to Oklahoma State, costing them a shot at another Big 12 Championship. The source of many of the year's frustrations seemed to become clear when Riley made the shocking decision to leave for USC, one of the more shocking coaching developments in recent CFB history. Legendary head man Bob Stoops came on and coached Oklahoma to an Alamo Bowl victory, but it was Brent Venables who Sooner brass brought on to be the long-term answer. Venables has connections to the program and was long considered a top head coaching candidate, but the shock of the Riley decision leaves the program scrambling entering 2022. 

2022 Outlook
Offense: Lincoln Riley was not only of the best offensive minds in the game, but to add insult to injury, he took star QB Caleb Williams with him. In response, Venables brought on Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to run the show, while landing a big-name transfer of his own in Dillon Gabriel.

In 26 starts over two-plus years with UCF, Gabriel tossed for 8,037 and 70 touchdowns. He not only has familiarity with Lebby's scheme, as Lebby as OC at UCF back in 2019, but his huge arm is an ideal fit. However, Gabriel is fresh off a season-ending injury that cost him most of 2021 and Oklahoma may need to be patient in bringing him back to full strength. I have little doubt that he'll put up huge numbers in 2022, but the jump to the Big 12 will be a significant one.

Tailback Kennedy Brooks had a resurgent 2021 campaign after opting out of 2020, but is now playing on Sundays. Former Tennessee transfer Eric Gray will get the first crack as the No. 1 back, but don't be surprised if OU leans on more of a committee approach this year.

In addition to Gray, who totaled 412 yards as a backup a season ago, Oklahoma also brings back junior Marcus Major, and has a pair of youngsters, Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk. Both offer explosiveness rushing and receiving ability and have caught the eyes of on-lookers at practice. Whether one, or both, are able to breakthrough and play a significant role on the 2022 team team remains to be seen.

After an impressive run of receivers from the mid-to-late 2010s, the Sooners have lacked a true game-changer at the position the last two seasons. That could change in '22, if junior Marvin Mims is able to unlock his full potential. Mims has established himself as a potent deep threat, but can he become a more reliable every-down receiver? Either way, the fact the new staff managed to keep him town was one of the larger wins of the offseason.

Mims may have stayed, but the transfers of Jadon Haselwood and Mario Williams leaves Oklahoma a bit thin at the receiver position. Senior Drake Stoops, Bob's son, has proven to be a capable contributor but isn't the type of athlete the Sooners are used to at the position. Meanwhile, junior Theo Wease has flashed time and time again, but hasn't been able to put it together over a full season, and missed all of 2021. Cody Jackson and Jalil Farooq also dot the roster, talented youngsters waiting to emerge.

The unsung hero of Oklahoma's success this past decade is O-Line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. Venables wasted no time securing Bedenbaugh as his OL coach moving forward, likely ensuring the Sooners will continue to be nasty up front. It also helps that three starters return to the unit and the Sooners added a tremendous transfer in Cal's McKade Mettauer, an All-Pac-12 pick a year ago. The position to watch is at right tackle, where former Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris is hoping 2022 is the year it all comes together for him. Don't be surprised if redshirt freshman Savion Byrd overtakes him at some point this fall.

The Sooner offense will look different now that Riley is at USC, but it still has a chance to be exceptional, assuming Gabriel comes back healthy. The O-Line should provide a nice starting point, and there's plenty of talent at the skill positions for Lebby to work with. Finishing top in the Big 12 in both scoring and total offense will be a tall order for the new staff, but it's within the realm of possibilities.

Defense: After making strides in 2019 and 2020, the OU defense seemed to take a step back last season. They were hit hard by injuries, particularly on the back-end, resulting in the nation's 109th-ranked pass defense.

Coordinator Alex Grinch followed Riley to 'SC, but some around the program feel they could improve despite his departure. Venables' background on defense bodes well for the program moving forward, although his complex scheme may be a stark transition in Year One.

Junior defensive tackle Jalen Redmond is the lone returning starter back on the defensive line, with key contributors like Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas gone. End Reggie Grimes has played plenty of snaps during his time in Norman, but the Sooners are hopeful he can step the next step this year. Tulane transfer Jeffery Johnson fills in an important need, plugging a hole next to Redmond, but it's unclear who will round out the unit and start at the other end spot. Sophomore Ethan Downs could be a prime candidate, coming off a year in which he totaled three tackles for loss and flashed serious upside.

Linebacker is where the most severe concerns lie, as Oklahoma said goodbye to a pair of program staples, Nik Bonitto and Brian Asamoah II. Bonitto was a pure pass rusher, with his value as a linebacker reserved solely for going after the opposing QB. He finished his career with multiple All-Big 12 selections, 33 TFL, and 19.5 sacks. Asamoah may end up being the more notable loss, a valuable piece in run support who finished tied for the team lead, with 80 tackles.

Senior outside linebacker DaShaun White is one of the lone returning familiar faces on the defensive side of the ball. He was third on the team in tackles a season ago, but will now have to prove himself in a leadership role. Surrounding him, there's plenty of question marks.

Senior David Ugwoegbu will have to fend off rising sophomore Danny Stutsman at the ultra-important middle linebacker spot, but the strong-side linebacker spot is a mystery. Junior Shane Wittier should be a good bet to see a hefty amount of snaps, while coordinator Ted Roof's son, T.D., will also factor into the rotation. Roof is now at his fourth school at the FBS level, spending the last two years at Appalachian State. He's no stranger to the Power Five level, previously with Georgia Tech and Indiana, so he should be able to contribute.

The pass defense has been the Achilles Heel of the Oklahoma defense for several years, and the injuries last year didn't help. However, with a bunch of experience back and questions up front, this may now have to be the strength of the Sooner "D". 

Veteran corners Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham have proven to be capable defenders, but the new staff is hoping for even more from them in 2022. Washington missed half the year with injury last season but is expected to be 100 percent, while Graham struggled with consistency. His interception to help seal the tight win over Nebraska was one of the highlights of the 2021 campaign. 

Safety may actually be the strength of the entire defense, with a nice blend of experience and upside. Former Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence was highly productive in his first season in Norman, proving to be quite the playmaker. He'll man the strong safety spot, while Billy Bowman is the favorite to handle free safety duties. An athlete through and through, Bowman can play just about anywhere in the secondary and could even play on offense if needed. The Sooners also add UNC transfer Trey Morrison, who made 41 starts during his time in Chapel Hill and provides an infusion of expertise.

Losing stars like Bonitto, Asamoah, Winfrey, and Thomas always create questions for a defense, particularly one that was far from elite in 2021. Venables and Roof are hopeful they can provide improvements with a different scheme, but it's fair to wonder how quickly the personnel will be able to acclimate. There's hope here, but I envision this defense finishing around the middle-of-the-pack in the conference once more.

Special Teams: Placekicker Gabe Brkic was a program staple at Oklahoma for several years, so his absence will be felt. Sophomore Zach Schmit attempted one field goal and four extra points in 2021, but will now take over starting duties. Fortunately, punter Michael Turk is a Ray Guy Award frontrunner, finishing second in the FBS in punt average last year.

Bottom Line: Oklahoma has been a model of consistency and stability for decades, but the program enters 2022 in a state of limbo. Not only are the aftereffects of Riley's move still being felt, the impending move to the SEC remains a fascinating storyline to watch. Fortunately, the hiring of Venables was an excellent response by Oklahoma brass, and the new head coach has done a fabulous job replacing talent quickly in the transfer portal and on the recruiting trail. That doesn't mean his debut campaign will necessarily be smooth sailing; so much staff and personnel turnover is always going to cause some growing pains, no matter how excellent that new staff is. Even so, the Sooners are still the best bet in the Big 12 in my mind. The other top contenders, Oklahoma State and Baylor, were also hit extremely hard by defections, and the Sooners get both at home. In fact, Oklahoma's schedule in general is pretty favorable; a road contest with Nebraska in the non-conference could be tricky, but the road trips inside the league are about as good as you could ask for in such a chaotic conference. The schedule, plus the fact the Sooners remain the most talented team in the league, leads me to pick them to reach at least ten wins and reclaim the Big 12 crown.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
A Kansas State alum, Brent Venables spent nearly two decades in the Big 12, coaching the Wildcats and Sooners as defensive coordinator. After he was let go by OU back in 2011, Venables landed at Clemson and quickly became one of the top defensive minds in college football. After a decade with the Tigers, Venables returns to Norman for his first stint as head coach. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby also has roots with the Sooners, a former alum who served as student assistant. His breakthrough came at UCF, where he was promoted from QB coach to OC, parlaying that into the same gig at Ole Miss. On the defensive side, Ted Roof is a journeyman who has been coaching in the world of football since the late 1980s. In the past decade, he's held coordinator positions at Penn State, Georgia Tech, NC State, Appalachian State, and Vanderbilt. He spent 2021 with Clemson as a defensive assistant and follows Venables to the Big 12.

Recruiting Breakdown
Considering Riley's decision came down just around two weeks before the Early Signing Day, Venables and staff did a superb job keeping the 2022 Class together. They finished eighth in the 247Sports Composite, coming in just behind Texas in the Big 12 rankings. There are no five-stars in this group, but it's punctuated by 18 four-stars at just about every position of need. In the backfield, Gavin Sawchuk and Jovantae Barnes could both realistically see playing time in 2022 following the departure of Kennedy Brooks. Sawchuk is the slightly higher-rated of the two, but Barnes' ability to catch the ball out of the backfield makes him quite an asset for this offense. Joining them on offense is Nick Evers, who will likely spend this year as Gabriel's backup, but who has a great chance to start in 2023. The former Florida commit looks the part, standing 6'3", with limitless arm strength that should be scary in Jeff Lebby's offense. The defensive side of the ball is headlined by two in-state defensive backs, corner Gentry Williams and safety Robert Spears-Jennings. Williams was the top-ranked player in the state of Oklahoma this cycle and followed through on his commitment even after Riley's decision.

2022 X-Factor: Dillon Gabriel, QB
Quarterbacks are always pretty much always X-factors heading into a new season, but Dillon Gabriel's importance to Oklahoma in 2022 can't be overstated. The former UCF signal-caller originally committed to UCLA but following Caleb Williams' decision, instead found his way to Norman. His familiarity with Jeff Lebby and proven track record with the Knights are reasons to feel good about what he can be in 2022, but it's fair to be concerned about his health. A broken clavicle cost him all but three games from last year and even though he's projected to 100 percent, the Sooners will have to be cautious with bringing him back to full-speed. Maintaining his health is not only an obvious goal, it's particularly important when you consider what's behind him on the depth chart. Of the other three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, only one, Pitt transfer Davis Belville, has thrown a pass at the FBS level. The other two, JUCO transfer General Booty and true frosh Nick Evers, haven't played a single snap at this level. Needless to say, Gabriel staying on the field will likely determine whether Oklahoma can get back on top of the Big 12 and win the conference.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big 12, Win Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Dillon Gabriel
Defensive MVP: LB DaShaun White
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Theo Wease
Impact Freshman: RB Gavin Sawchuk

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