Oklahoma football: Quick-strike response signals Sooners knew what was up

OU quarterback Caleb Williams (13) waves to the crowd after a win against Texas Tech on Oct. 30 in Norman.tramel jump
OU quarterback Caleb Williams (13) waves to the crowd after a win against Texas Tech on Oct. 30 in Norman.tramel jump /

The aftershocks of the Lincoln Riley exit, on which former head coach Bob Stoops and new head man Brent Venables have worked resolutely and unremittingly the past few weeks to limit the damage, are still wreaking havoc in the Oklahoma football program.

In the challenging hours immediately following the news that Riley was walking away from the program and taking several OU assistants with him, a secondary fear surfaced that staff members wouldn’t be the only ones to follow their trusted and admired leader or at least rethink their current situation.

Sooner fans are painfully aware of the consequential fallout among OU recruits and players on the roster, largely the result of the coaching change. All the while, the feeling around the team and its fan base has been that as troubling as these residual events have been, things were going to be all right heading into 2022 as long as Caleb Williams remained in Norman and committed to the Oklahoma program.

On Monday, when Williams announced via Twitter that he was entering the transfer portal, shock waves again rolled through the Sooner Nation, setting in motion Newton’s third law of relativity — an equal and opposite reaction — in the college football world.

Perhaps none of us should be surprised that Williams is testing the waters and searching out what is best for his continued development. After all, he has had every opportunity over the past month to affirm his loyalty and allay the concerns of his teammates as well OU fans. The fact that he chose to remain noncommittal about the whole situation should have told us plenty.

Williams does deserve some credit, though, for sticking it out through the Alamo Bowl game and leading the Sooners to a definite feel-good victory in the wake of multiple player opt-outs in the days leading up to the game.

Oklahoma’s lightning-fast response in reacting to the Williams news does not strike me as a random action. Athletic director Joe Castiglione and head coach Brent Venables must have seen this coming. It’s no coincidence that OU was able to snatch Dillon Gabriel out of the same portal that Williams is entering within a couple of hours of the Williams’ news going public.

The mere fact that Williams is exploring his options makes it pretty clear he is not satisfied or comfortable with his current situation. He has made it abundantly clear that Lincoln Riley was the reason he came to Oklahoma and was even willing to walk on if need be. With Riley now out of the picture, Williams’ developmental plans, at least in his mind, have been disrupted, and he’s looking for a better alignment and growth opportunity than he feels he has at Oklahoma.

Sooner fans know it’s silly to think that he can find a place that much better to shine and show off his talents on a national stage than at OU, but for whatever reason(s) Williams believes it is time to move on. He can try to mollify his actions by teasing us with comforting words like “staying at Oklahoma will definitely be an option,” but let’s be honest, you don’t enter the transfer portal with the intention staying where you are.

There will be no shortage of suitors for Williams’ services. For the most part, he can pretty well pick where he wants to go. With the assumption that he is no longer going to be an Oklahoma Sooner, finding a starting quarterback for next season was an absolute imperative.

To the credit of the Castiglione, Venables & Co., Oklahoma was not about to wait around for Williams to decide where he was going to be this spring and next season. The Sooners went out and hedged their bet, landing arguably the best quarterback available in the portal in Dillon Gabriel. And Gabriel wasn’t actually available, having previously committed to UCLA and just days away from starting classes for the spring semester.

Gabriel also has a connection with new OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, which certainly is a contributing factor for his coming to Oklahoma. Lebby was the offensive coordinator at UCF in Gabriel’s freshman season in 2019.

The Hawaiian native threw for 3,363 yards and 29 touchdowns at UCF under Lebby’s coaching. In 26 career starts at UCF, Gabriel threw for 8,041 yards and 70 touchdowns with 14 total interceptions before breaking his collarbone early this past season.

Gabriel holds the Hawaii high school career passing record of 9,848 yards and 105 touchdowns. That’s saying something when you consider that names like Tua Tagovailoa, his brother Taulia Tagovailoa, Tommy Chang, and McKenzie Milton are also on that list.

Dillon will be the first left-handed quarterback to play for Oklahoma since Josh Heupel in 1999-2000. He has up to three years of eligibility remaining, including a COVID-waiver season if he elects to exercise the option.

The other thing you have to consider is Gabriel wouldn’t have been so quick to renege on his UCLA commitment and jump to come to Oklahoma if he thought there was a good chance Williams would remain with the Sooners. Another fairly strong signal that the Williams departure is a done deal.

There still could be some internal dissension and further fallout within the OU ranks resulting from Williams’ decision to seek other opportunities. For example, wide receivers Mario Williams and Jahlil Farooq were both youth teammates of Williams and followed him to Oklahoma to be able to play with him. There have also been rumors that sophomore wide receiver Marvin Mims might be considering leaving.

We’ll have to wait and see how all of this ultimately plays out. OU officials are hoping that bringing in an experienced quarterback with the talents of Gabriel not only provides an excellent insurance policy but also will help stem the tide of further roster defections.