Oklahoma football: First impressions of 2022 Sooner football

Oklahoma's Reggie Grimes (14) celebrates during a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13.Ou Vs Utep
Oklahoma's Reggie Grimes (14) celebrates during a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13.Ou Vs Utep /

They don’t award championship trophies after one game, but this new edition of Oklahoma football looks primed and ready for all challengers.

All offseason we read and heard reports that the 2022 season could be a step back by Oklahoma standards before things get a lot better under new and first-time head coach Brent Venables. That the Sooners were building for the future and for their eventual conference move to the SEC. OU fans were being advised not to set their expectation for the 2022 season too high.

OU had lost too much in the coaching transition from Lincoln Riley to Venables, the media kept telling us, and with all the changes and 50 or so new faces on the Sooner football roster, there were too many uncertainties surrounding Oklahoma and the 2022 Big 12 season.

Baylor, the reigning Big 12 champion, and Oklahoma State were expected to field strong teams again this season, and Texas may or may not be all the way back, but the Longhorns looked pretty formidable in their season opener on Saturday.

That was the backdrop heading into Week 1 of the new college football season. Nine of the 10 Big 12 teams came away with season-opening victories, including Oklahoma, a 45-13 victor over a pretty good but far from great UTEP team out of Conference USA.

Some folks may have thought of UTEP as a rummy and a team hardly worthy of challenging a college blueblood like Oklahoma.

The Miners actually went to a bowl game with seven wins last season, and their quarterback, Gavin Hardison, is good enough to start for a Power Five program. Let’s be clear, though. UTEP was never expected to upset the Sooners, but the Miners clearly posed a stronger challenge than, say, Albany, a team that was 2-9 last season, did against Baylor, or Louisian Monroe, a 4-8 team a year ago, did playing at Texas.

All that is probably irrelevant, because it will all even out when we get into the conference schedule. But the opening game of the season does give us a first impression of what we can expect going forward, and what we saw from Oklahoma was a team playing with a different energy and drive, an offense that is as explosive and balanced as any prior OU team and, importantly, a defense that was playing with great physicality, swarming to the ball and refused to give up big plays, something that has plagued the Sooners in recent years.

Jeff Lebby’s no-huddle offense had the Miners’ defenders on their heels early and often, and when OU had back-to-back three-and-outs in the opening half, the defense picked up its game, especially on third and fourth downs, as a complementary piece in the overall game plan. That has been a huge problem the last couple of years for the Sooners. When the offense struggled and was unable to sustain drives, it often spelled doom because the OU defense was unable to get stops and prevent opponents from putting up points and getting back into games.

Unlike some offenses that like to throw the ball to create better opportunity to run the ball, the Sooners actually employ the run game to draw defenders into the box and open up the field for their aerial attack and get playmakers in space. And on Saturday, Oklahoma utilized the ground game to the tune of 259 rushing yards. OOU ran the ball 38 times and put the ball in the air 23 times for another 233 yards.

Oklahoma ran 61 plays in the game. This is probably far fewer than Lebby wants the offense to run. The idea of the hurry-up offense is to run 80 or 90 plays in a game. This does a couple of things. First it keeps the ball in the hands of the offense for much of the game, but it also provides the opportunity to put up plenty of points. The more plays you run, the greater opportunity you have to score (the old Billy Tubbs basketball philosophy).

The Sooner defensive unit is clearly in transition this season, but it is also clear that the scheme being employed by Venables and veteran defensive coordinator Ted Roof is built differently and has the personnel within the unit playing to their individual and collective strengths. The new role for the “Cheetah,” as it’s being called — a hybrid position between a linebacker and a fifth defensive back or nickelback — allows the opportunity to keep a third linebacker on the field who is capable of playing both the run and the pass.

DaShaun White is the principal Sooner manning the “Cheetah” role in OU’s new defensive alignment, although several Sooners will rotate in the role throughout the season.

Another noticeable change in the defense is a four-man rush. Alex Grinch went with a 3-3-5 defensive alignment. Under Venables, OU is going with a more traditional 4-3 front seven in base packages. And that certainly paid big dividends in Saturday’s win.

The Sooners recorded six quarterback sacks and 10 QB hurries and were constantly applying pressure to the UTEP quarterback Hardison. It also grounded the UTEP rushing attack. The Miners were held to 28 rushing yards total on 31 attempts.

There was some concern coming into the season about the OU placekicking game. Redshirt sophomore Zach Schmit replaces Gabe Brkic this season.

Before this season, Schmit had attempted just one field goal in his OU career. Schmit handled the kickoff, FG and point-after duties on Saturday. He was successful on a 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, his only FG attempt in the game, and also made all six of his extra-point tries. Also, six of his eight kickoffs were touchbacks and were not returned. Bottom line: Looks like the kicking game (the Sooners also have the best punter in the Big 12 in Michael Turk) is in good hands and legs this season.

So, it’s on to Week 2 and Kent State. If what was on display on Saturday for the college football world to observe is any indication of what this season holds for the Crimson and Cream, it should be a really fun ride.