Oklahoma Sooners Football: Five September takeaways

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Observations on Dillon Gabriel, OU’s defensive line and team morale.

The Oklahoma Sooners are officially a third of the way through the 2022 regular season, Brent Venables’ first as head coach of the program. How about some knee-jerk reactions to what we’ve seen from the Sooners in the first month?

Quarterback Dillon Gabriel is fine.

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The Central Florida transfer doesn’t have the skills of his predecessors at OU. If you expected Gabriel would be an upgrade over Caleb Williams at the most important position in sports, that’s on you.

However, through four games, Gabriel seems to be piloting the new offensive scheme more than adequately. He currently ranks 13th nationally in passer rating, and he has thrown 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions. He’s even making plays with his feet, rushing for a total of 116 yards on 13 carries in the last two games.

Advanced analytics indicate OU hasn’t lost much in terms of efficiency in the coaching transition, either. The Sooners currently rank third nationally in Offensive SP+, which is in line with where they have finished every year since 2015. That speaks to Gabriel’s ability to execute what offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is laying out for him.

Gabriel has missed on a handful of throws this year that probably left points on the field. His tendency to hold the ball too long has worked OU into trouble at times. He has failed to see open receivers at times.

Even so, the good has outweighed the bad by a respectable amount.

A little optimism about the loss to Kansas State.

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The good vibes around the Sooners’ 3-0 start dissipated quickly last week following OU’s upset loss to the Wildcats.

It seems clear in retrospect that KSU coach Chris Klieman and his staff devoted a significant amount of time to preparing for the Sooners in the weeks leading up to their upset win. The Wildcats tied up OU’s interior linebackers in knots in the running game. Meanwhile, their new wrinkles including playing against tendency by passing downfield more often than usual on first down. KSU rang up 156 yards on first-down throws against the Sooners, which accounted for two-thirds of the Wildcats’ total passing yardage in the game and more than half of the passing yards they’ve accumulated on first down this season. Some of KSU’s biggest gains came from passes to tight end Ben Sinnott in the middle of the field – he ended the game with 80 yards on four receptions, compared with a total of five catches for 22 yards in the first three games of the year.

One of the hidden costs of having a first-year coach like Venables is the amount of time burned focusing on fundamental skills and principles of new schemes at the expense of preparing for upcoming matchups. That can put a team at a severe disadvantage against teams coached by strategists on the level of Klieman and Co. It’s also worth noting that the inexperience of OU’s coaching staff was on display during a key moment in the KSU game.

The good news is that disadvantage won’t last forever. Not to mention, OU didn’t even play well and kept the final margin within a touchdown.

Marvin Mims is living up to the hype.

No player has benefited more from OU’s new offensive system than Mims, who is playing like a potential day one selection in the 2023 NFL Draft. The star wideout has caught 18 balls for 397 yards and three touchdowns in four games. That puts him on pace to far exceed his receiving production in each of Mims’ first two campaigns in Norman. Mims also has 118 yards in punt returns, meaning he has already nearly doubled his return yardage for all of 2021.

Mims now ranks 14th nationally in receiving yards and 11th in yards per catch at 22.1. The biggest obstacle to an All-American campaign may be the emergence of running mates Theo Wease and Jalil Farooq, both of whom started heating up in the last two games.

Interior run defense… kinda concerning.

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Inside linebackers David Ugwoegbu and Danny Stutsman seemed to take the brunt of the criticism for how well KSU ran the ball against OU. Frankly, the play on the defensive line between the tackles had a sizable hand in that debacle as well. Wildcats running back Deuce Vaughn gashed the Sooners up the middle multiple times for big gains en route to 116 rushing yards on 16 carries. Meanwhile, KSU could count on inside runs like QB Power to get Adrian Martinez the space he need convert in short-yardage situations.

OU struggled controlling the interior gaps earlier this year against Kent State. In fact, Oregon exploited OU through the middle in the Alamo Bowl last season, with Ducks RB Travis Dye running for 153 yards on 18 attempts.

The ILBs’ reads and technique against the run have to improve, but OU’s defensive linemen also need to stand their ground more consistently.

Time to find out how Venables handles the swings.

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As is the case with most new coaches, Venables’ arrival at OU in the offseason brought a new sense of energy and excitement to the program. As is also the case with most new coaches, he inherited a situation with the potential for big swings in morale.

Venables’ mentor at OU, Bob Stoops, had a knack for bouncing back from tough losses and helping his squads adapt to setbacks. It played a key role in his squads’ track record of reliability from year to year. While Venables was at Clemson, Dabo Swinney’s teams also tended to respond well after losses.

Hopefully, OU’s head coach picked up some tips at his previous stops to help keep the Sooners on an even keel. A competitive Big 12 will teams for moping this year.