Oklahoma football: All eyes are on defense, but how about the offense?

Dec 29, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Gavin Sawchuk (27) runs with the ball against the Florida State Seminoles in the second quarter during the 2022 Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 29, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Gavin Sawchuk (27) runs with the ball against the Florida State Seminoles in the second quarter during the 2022 Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Most of the concerns as well as the best chance for an Oklahoma football turnaround from a disappointing 2022 season are centered on defensive issues, but what can we expect in the coming season from a new-look Sooner offense.

High-powered offense is something that has come to be expected from Oklahoma, and that goes all the way back to the Bud Wilkinson era, which is the one formally credited for putting Oklahoma football on the national map.

Oklahoma lost its leading receiver and No. 1 running back from last season to the NFL Draft, but the Sooners do return their starting quarterback, Dillon Gabriel, who will be entering his fifth year of college football. The offense also losses three starters on the offensive line.

Given the lost production and protection, it would be reasonable to assume that the Sooners’ No. 1 Big 12 offense and 13th-best nationally a year ago would take a step back in the coming season. If that is where you’re at in your assessment of the situation, you’ll be surprised to learn that the OU offense will experience little, if any, drop off from last season and — spoiler alert! — likely will be even better.

Despite the departures, which again are not insignificant, the Sooners had a great 2023 recruiting cycle, gaining elite high school offensive talent and complemented with several transfers expected to provide experience and an immediate impact on the offensive side.

Offensively, of course, it all starts with the quarterback position, and the Sooners are well set there with the veteran Gabriel, who has thrown for over 3,000 yards in each of his three full seasons of college ball and should easily exceed that number again this season. The backup situation is also massively improved with former five-star QB recruit Jackson Arnold settling in and learning under Gabriel.

Running back is the team’s strongest 2023 position group

The reality is Oklahoma has talent and depth in every offensive position group. And the deepest in depth and talent is the running back group. Sophomore Jovantae Barnes and redshirt-freshman Gavin Sawchuk are the clear front runners, but offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and running backs coach DeMarco Murray also like what they see in Marcus Major and Tawee Walker and believe one or both could play a role at running back this season. And beyond that, you’ve got a pair of talented freshmen RBs in Daylan Smothers and Kalib Hicks who could be really good in time. T

Barnes ran for 510 yards last year with five touchdowns and averaged 4.5 yards per carry as the primary back up for Eric Gray. He did that while nursing a bad foot that bothered him all season. He had surgery on the foot in the offseason. He’s back and ready to go, and says he feels like himself again and primed to have a big year.

Last week during the first week of preseason training camp, the sophomore running back told Ryan Aber, OU beat writer for The Oklahoman:

"“Some people say I did OK my freshman year, but I’ll say that wasn’t really me.”"

That is definitely a good sign for the Oklahoma run game this season, and fair warning for the Sooners’ 2023 opponents.

This is as deep as OU has been at running back in a number of years, and Barnes and Sawchuk, barring injury, have a good chance of becoming another dynamic one-two Sooner punch at the position.

Talent and depth not an issue with plenty of receivers ready to shine

The biggest surprise, however, may come from the wide receivers. Left with only two wide receivers — junior Jalil Farooq and veteran Drake Stoops, with any meaningful game experience out of last year’s group, it appeared that the Sooners could struggle finding the right complement of go-to targets in the passing game. The first couple of weeks of fall training camp have dispelled that concern.

This is another deep and talented position group, and the real issue for OC Lebby is finding enough playing time and the right combination of the talent that exists at wide receiver. Farooq is expected to step up in the lead receiver role on the outside held by Marvin Mims last season, and Stoops will be the primary slot receiver.

Redshirt freshman Nic Anderson is drawing a lot of buzz during training camp as someone to watch for as an emerging pass-receiving target this fall. The 6-foot-4 redshirt-freshman receiver possesses both size and athleticism, a combination that could make him a highly productive weapon in the OU offense. Former Arizona State transfer LV Bunkley-Shelton has also looked good in the first two weeks of training camp.

Transfers Andrel Anthony (Michigan) and Brenen Thompson (Texas) possess blazing speed and could turn into strong weapons both in intermediate routes as well as deep patterns along with Farooq.

Sophomore Gavin Freeman is also being talked about a lot in training camp. The former walk-on didn’t see a lot of playing time last season, but he took full advantage of the opportunities he did receive. He was targeted five times and made three receptions his freshman season, including a 41-yarder that was the longest OU plays of the season.

Head coach Brent Venables called him the “best receiver coming out of spring practice.”

"“He’s one of the fastest guys on our team, and he wins everything out there,” the Sooner head coach told reporters ahead of the start of fall practice.“If (strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt) stood up here wanting to talk about Gavin Freeman. he’d be here until midnight.”"

The Sooners aren’t as deep or experienced at tight end as they might like to be, but if Austin Stogner can stay healthy, they should be in good shape. Stogner returns to OU after one season at South Carolina. He spent his first three seasons at Oklahoma, where he caught 47 passes for over 650 yards and eight touchdowns. Beyond Stogner, OU is especially thin at the tight-end spot coming into the 2023 season.

Bill Bedenbaugh’s group always comes through

Oklahoma is replacing three starters on the offensive line after losing tackles Anton Harrison and Wanya Morris to the NFL Draft and right guard Chris Murray, whose eligibility ended. This has happened several times over the past few years, and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh has retooled moving players up the depth chart and adding both talent and experience from the transfer portal.

Redshirt-junior Tyler Guyton replaces Morris at right tackle. Florida State defensive lineman Jared Verse, projected as a top-10 2024 NFL Draft pick, called Guyton the best offensive linemen he has played against. The Seminoles defeated the Sooners 38-35 in the Cheez-It Bowl last season. Stanford transfer Walter Rouse has been brought in to replace Harrison at left tackle. Rouse started 39 of 40 games in four seasons at Stanford.

McKade Mettauer, a 2022 transfer from Cal, is expected to slide over to right guard, replacing Murray, and Savion Byrd, a redshirt-sophomore and former four-star recruit, heads the depth chart at left guard. Senior Andrew Raym returns to anchor the Sooner O-line at center this season.

It may take a few games for this O-line group to gel as a unit, but when it does, it has the potential to be better than a year ago.

Look for Zach Schmidt to step up his kicking game

Zach Schmidt returns as the primary placekicker for the Sooners. He was just 12 of 18 on field-goal tries last season with a long of 44 yards. Expect that to improve in 2023. He was perfect, however, in 53 extra-point attempts.

Bottom line

The emphasis at Oklahoma heading into the 2023 college football season has clearly been on defensive improvement. But that doesn’t mean that the offense is being overlooked. There is every reason to believe the 2023 OU offensive unit will produce at an equally high level to previous Sooner teams over the previous five seasons.