Oklahoma football: What will Jeff Lebby’s Sooner offense look like?

Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby watches during the University of Oklahoma Sooners football Pro Day inside the Everest Training Center in Norman, Okla., Wednesday, March 9, 2022.Ou Football Pro Day
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby watches during the University of Oklahoma Sooners football Pro Day inside the Everest Training Center in Norman, Okla., Wednesday, March 9, 2022.Ou Football Pro Day /

For years, the element of speed has been a hallmark of Oklahoma football teams.

They say speed kills and that it is a skill you can’t teach, and the Sooners have made a long and successful history out of playing quicker and faster than their bigger opponents on both sides of the ball.

Oklahoma’s offensive numbers have been through the roof over the past five years, all coinciding with the presence of Lincoln Riley and the implementation and execution of his Air Raid offense he brought with him.

The Riley era is now over at Oklahoma. It’s all packed up and now in residence at USC in south Los Angeles. A new offensive coordinator, Jeff Lebby, has taken over the reins, but the rest of the Sooner offensive coaching staff remains in place, with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, wide receivers coach Cale Gundy and running backs coach DeMarco Murray staying put.

With a new offensive architect, new system and new offensive philosophy in place and new starters at several key positions — including, arguably, at the most important position, quarterback — yes, you can expect the offense to embody and embrace change.

What should not change, however, is the high-powered and high-scoring nature of the offense.

It all starts at the quarterback position

Success in the offense all starts at the quarterback position, and the Sooners again appear to be in a strong position there. Every championship team has an outstanding quarterback and leader at that position.

Transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel is an ideal fit and team leader to run Lebby’s OU offense. For one thing, he has already played under a Lebby-directed offense while both were at UCF. In 2019, with Lebby as offensive coordinator and Gabriel as the starting quarterback, UCF was No.2 nationally among FBS teams in total offense (540.5 yards per game).

Gabriel’s threw 70 touchdown passes in two-plus seasons at UCF and just 14 interceptions. Those 70 passing TDs were the third most in the country over the past three years, despite the fact he missed the final 10 games in 2021 after suffering a collarbone injury, from which he is now full recovered.

Sooner fans will get their first look at Gabriel and the new Oklahoma offense on Saturday during the annual Red-White spring game. His new Sooner teammates admire the passion and confidence they’ve seen in Gabriel and his calmness under pressure.

“You can feel his presence,” offensive lineman Wanya Morris told Berry Tramel, sports columnist for The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman after practice earlier this week. “That’s what you want when you play. I want quarterbacks where you felt their presence,” said Morris, himself a transfer last season from Tennessee.

"“There’s been a lot of great quarterbacks at Oklahoma, and he’s going to be one of them,” he said."

Head coach Brent Venables asked a number of OU players after practice recently what people would see from them once the games start in the fall. When he asked Gabriel that question, the immediate response was that people are going to see the “best player on the field.”

It’s true that his impressive performance while at UCF was accomplished against opponents considered a notch below what he will encounter in the Big 12. But it is also true that the offensive weapons he will have around him at Oklahoma are better than he had previously.

Over the past couple of decades, the quarterback bar has been set extraordinarily high. Good is not good enough when it comes to Sooner quarterbacks. Just ask former No. 1 overall quarterback recruit and now former Sooner Spencer Rattler about that.

Oklahoma loses some big names at key positions on the offense, but believe me, there is plenty of talent and playmakers still there for there not to be much if any drop off in offensive production. What will be different is how Lebby’s offensive system goes about delivering that production.

Sooners to push the tempo on offense

Like Riley before him returned the Air Raid offense to Oklahoma football, Lebby wants to see the Sooner offense return to a faster, more fearless and physical style of play.

“I truly believe there has not been a championship team that hasn’t found a way to be physical in every area if their football team,” Lebby was quoted as saying while he was at Ole Miss.

Expect Oklahoma to be more physical on offense, from being a ball carrier to blocking on the perimeter or in the trenches, but perhaps the most noticeable difference will be how fast the offense gets into its plays. Lebby wants the Sooners to be more up tempo, something they have gotten away from since Bob Stoops days on the OU sidelines.

Speed and physicality are also two common traits of a Venables defense, so it fits well into Venables overall plan for the Sooners.

"“Coach Lebby always says have blood in the water,” Morris said.“When you’re on that long drive, you get to 8, 9, 19 plays, you see the defense putting their hands on their heads, that just means you’ve got to find another zone, lock in and go.”"

Conditioning will be a critical part of OU’s ability to play faster, keep the defense on its heels and eventually wear the defenders down. That is the responsibility of strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, one of the best in the business, who has returned to OU for a second go-round.

Act I in the Brent Venables era and what Oklahoma football will be like going forward will unfold on Saturday on Owen Field as 2022 spring practice draws to a close. Expect to see a different look but with much of the same thrills and excitement and same hunger for winning we’ve seen from the top Sooner teams of the past.