Freshman QB Jackson Arnold getting healthy dose of Sooner football reality

Oklahoma quarterback Jackson Arnold speaks to media during a press conference in Norman, Okla., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.Ou Sooners Football
Oklahoma quarterback Jackson Arnold speaks to media during a press conference in Norman, Okla., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.Ou Sooners Football /

Jackson Arnold, the top Oklahoma football recruit in the 2023 class, arrived in Norman early this year with sky-high expectations accompanied by giant social media fanfare.

A consensus five-star prospect and the Gatorade National Player of the Year out of Denton Guyer High School, Arnold’s signing was a huge gain for the Sooners and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Oklahoma has veteran Dillon Gabriel returning at quarterback for a second season, but the depth and talent at arguably the most important position on the field was seriously deficit before the addition of Arnold.

Although much is expected from Arnold over time, he also has much to learn about playing at the Division I college level in general and the Oklahoma culture and offensive system in particular.

Rated as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports, and No. 4 by 247Sports, and the No. 3 and No. 10 player overall, respectively, Arnold is the seventh highest-rated Oklahoma recruit in history, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

Arnold is on campus and an early enrollee at OU, which makes him eligible to participate in spring football activities, and he now understands how much of a benefit that three-month head start is over arriving on campus in the summer.

“I never realized how much of a benefit it truly was until a month in,” Arnold said to reporters after a recent practice session. “I thought if I came this summer I could learn this offense pretty quick (and be ready) to play this offense in the fall.

"“That’s wrong. I’m going to need this whole spring to get used to this offense and get used to learning Coach Lebby’s offense.”"

Arnold received an Oklahoma playbook immediately after signing in late December. “Just going through it in my house, there weren’t a lot of things I understood,” he said.

Arnold’s learning curve at OU will be greatly enhanced by the fact that he ran essentially the same offense in high school in Denton that he will be asked to operate out of at Oklahoma.

Fortunately, Arnold has the time to get adjusted and more comfortable with differences and difficulty of playing the game at the highest college level. He also is not expected to step on the field in the fall as the starting quarterback. He is in a position to learn and be mentored by the returning starter Gabriel, who is in his second year in Norman but his fifth season playing college football.

"“We’re playing at a high level, but he is also 18 years old,” Gabriel reminds everyone in speaking about his highly touted QB understudy. “He’s learning, he’s growing, and you’ve just got to take that all into perspective.”"

More than his game, Gabriel like what he sees in Arnold’s character and the type of person he is.

“It takes that kind of person to be a quarterback,” Gabriel said. “Super selfless, loving, caring, and that’s what we need. Not me-guys, but we-guys.”

Lebby is pleased with what he is seeing in his young freshman quarterback. “He understands what it means to be the guy here and what it is going to take for him to get to that point,” the Sooner offensive coordinator says. Lebby actually recruited Arnold while he was the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 2020 and 2021 before taking the job at Oklahoma.

A pair of ESPN college football analysts, Craig Haubert and Tom Lugginbill, recently compared Arnold to former Oklahoma Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield:

"“Arnold is like Mayfield not only in stature (6-foot, 1-inch, 195 pounds) but also in style,” they said. “He’s confident, poised and intellectual. The 2022-23 Gatorade Player of the Year should face a seamless transition at the next level.”"

Because of his newness, Arnold will naturally start at the bottom of the quarterback room depth chart — behind Gabriel, Davis Beville and General Booty, at least to begin with. Before season’s end, however, and barring injury, expect to see Arnold fully entrenched in the No. 2 spot.