Oklahoma football: Sooners offering big in rebuild of 2023 class

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 28: Oklahoma Sooners helmets are seen prior to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between the LSU Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 28: Oklahoma Sooners helmets are seen prior to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between the LSU Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Oklahoma football recruiting took a swift and gut-punching blow in the days immediately after Lincoln Riley played his get-out-of-town card.

The Sooners lost top-ranked commitments in both its 2022 and 2023 classes.

Since being named the new Oklahoma head coach, Brent Venables and his Sooner staff have managed to stop the fallout in the 2022 class and have actually added to the total with several quality recruits on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and they hope to add several more before National Signing Day on Feb. 2.

The bigger post-Riley hit to the Sooners’ future talent pipeline, however, may have been in the recruiting cycle a year further out.

Riley’s lure for top quarterback talent had resulted in a commitment from the country’s top quarterback prospect for the 2023 cycle in Malachi Nelson out of Los Alamitos, California. And when you are able to bring in a player with the talent expectations of a player like Nelson, especially at the quarterback position, it generally follows that other top prospects are going to want to join him.

That’s what happened when Caleb Williams signed with the Sooners, and the Nelson commitment followed form. Nelson’s high school teammate, wide-receiver Mkai Lemon, himself a highly recruited prospect, quickly committed to Riley and the Sooners.

By the end of last season, the Oklahoma 2023 recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the nation by both 247Sports and Rivals.

The fallout after the Riley bombshell was directly felt in the Sooners’ 2023 class, as Nelson and Lemon quickly pounced on the opportunity to redirect their college commitment to dance with the one who had recruited them and remain home in Southern California at the same time.

Oklahoma currently has two commitments in its 2023 class — four-star wide receiver DeAndre Moore Jr., who interestingly is also a high school teammate of Nelson and Lemon in Los Alamitos, and offensive lineman Joshua Bates — which has dropped all the way to 14th (247Sports) and 17th (rivals) in the latest national class rankings.

The immediate concern for Brent Venables and his mostly new OU coaching staff is 2022 class with just a little over one week until February National Signing Day, but they’ve also been on the trail for 2023 prospects, as well.

Venables’ approach to recruiting is a bit different from Riley’s. Not so much that they don’t want to bring in the best players to fit positional needs, but Venables is an adamant believer that it isn’t only about physical skills, but what a recruit brings to the team’s overall culture.

“Recruiting always has been and always will be about building relationships and trust, understanding who each other are,” Venables said when he was officially introduced as the new OU head coach.

“The biggest thing is trying to bring value to our locker room. It’s very important that we do a very good job of vetting the types of people we’re bringing into the locker room, because we’re trying to build a culture, protect the culture, continue to enhance the culture.”

But that doesn’t mean the Sooners aren’t going after the best of the best in the recruiting efforts. Defense is how Venables built his national acclaim, so it stands to reason that he wouldn’t be shy about recruiting the very best defensive prospects he can find, as he did in the decade he was building one of the nation’s top defensive teams at Clemson.

The Sooners have a scholarship offer out to Caleb Downs, the consensus No.1 safety in the 2023 class and regarded as one of the top prospects overall in the class. Downs is on just about everyone’s radar, and especially those major programs in strong need of back-end defensive help.

While it might be easy to dismiss the offer made to Downs, concluding there wouldn’t be any way the Georgia native would want to come to Oklahoma to play defense, there are a couple of good reasons not to rush to judgement on this one. First of all, Venables is recognized as one of the best defensive coaches in college football, and then there’ Jay Valai.

According to On3 director of recruiting Chad Simmons, Valai, the new defensive backs coach for Oklahoma, built a strong relationship with Downs while he was coaching D-backs this past season at Alabama. So, don’t count out the Sooners, not yet anyway.

Over the weekend, Oklahoma hosted several top 2023 recruiting targets for an on-campus visit. Among the more notable prospects who were in attendance were defensive lineman David Hicks and interior offensive lineman Anthony Hill.

Hicks is a five-star prospect that was being heavily recruited by Sooner defensive line coach Todd Bates when the latter was an assistant coach at Clemson. Not surprising, then, that Bates would still have a high interest in recruiting Hicks for the Sooners.

The connection to Hill that could help the Sooners in their recruitment is that OU sophomore defensive back Billy Bowman is from the same high school in Denton, Texas.

Another top prospect who was in attendance at OU’s ChampU recruiting event over the weekend was four-star 2023 quarterback prospect Jackson Arnold. The weekend visit obviously paid off for both parties as Arnold, rated by ESPN as the No. 2 quarterback in the 2023 class, committed to the Sooners on Monday morning.