Oklahoma football: Most/least concern entering 2023 season

Oklahoma's Jonah Laulu during a practice for the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) football team in Norman, Okla., Friday, Aug. 4, 2023.
Oklahoma's Jonah Laulu during a practice for the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) football team in Norman, Okla., Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. /

Talking season is over, and now it’s time to walk the talk and see for real what Oklahoma football Team 129 has to offer.

The season opener against Arkansas State probably won’t give us much of a read on what to expect from the Sooners in Year 2 of the Brent Venables era of OU football.

Because the three nonconference games to open the 2023 season is not all that challenging, similar to a year ago, it may not be until the fourth weekend of the season when Oklahoma opens Big 12 play against newcomer Cincinnati and maybe a couple of games thereafter that we will know what we really have with this team. A few games in, however, we should have a good idea of what the Sooners’ identity will be.

Venables has informed us that the team still has a lot of areas to improve in but that he likes the hard work that is being put in and the mindset of the guys heading into the new season. He also has emphasized the competitive depth that exists throughout the roster, which should provide the Sooners with more stamina and allow them to finish out games stronger than last season.

It is reasonable to assume that Oklahoma will show improvement in many areas over the disappointing 2022 last season but, of course, not all areas are equal. In terms of most concern and least concern, here is what we see as the Sooners prepare to open the 2023 season.

Can the O-line hold its own and allow the run game to infuse the pass offense?

The Sooners lost three offensive line starters from a year ago. Conversely, that means breaking in three new starters and need for them to feel comfortable playing and communicating with one another, which may take some time from a continuity standpoint. To help address the issue, OU brought in Walter Rouse, a transfer from Stanford with a big, strong body and four years of offensive line experience.

Rouse, who is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds is being counted on as a big piece in the Sooners’ rebuilt offensive line this season. He had shoulder surgery in December and was held out of spring practice, but he is healthy, has returned to action and is ready to go to start the season.

The offensive line plays a major role in how the offense performs as a whole. It’s up to the guys up front to clear run lanes for the OU running backs and also protect the quarterback on pass plays. OU’s ability to execute balance in its offense is largely triggered and impacted by how well the Sooners are able to run the ball, and vice versa with the aerial game.

Andrew Raym returns at center and McKade Mettaur at right guard. Rouse will take over the position vacated by Anton Harrison at left tackle, but Dillon Gabriel is a left-handed quarterback, so it is the right tackle responsible for protecting his blind side. That responsibility will fall on former TCU transfer Tyler Guyton, who made five starts for OU last season. Redshirt sophomore Savion Byrd, whose first career start was in the bowl game last season with Florida State, will man the other guard spot.

The X-factor in all of this, of course, is offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, one of the very best in the business. The good news is the Sooners have been through this kind of offensive line rebuild several times in recent seasons, and OU has come out of it just fine.

You can’t have a highly ranked offense every season without the offensive line pulling its weight (no pun intended). That’s the hope for the Sooners this season, but it will remain a prime concern until proven otherwise.

Young, untested wide-receiver corps will turn out as a blessing in disguise

With Dillon Gabriel returning for a second season as the Oklahoma quarterback, the Sooners return 99 percent of their passing yards from a year ago, but just 33 percent of its pass receiving yards. Oklahoma’s wide receivers’ room is deep and talented, but beyond junior Jalil Farooq and sixty-year receiver Drake Stoops, only two OU receivers on the roster have caught more than two passes in an Oklahoma uniform. This is a glaring concern, right? No, not necessarily, and I’ll tell you why.

I’m expecting big things from this group, and I believe offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby silently feels this group could be the biggest surprise of the season. To begin with, the group possesses an ideal mixture of size and speed, two attributes that can’t be taught. It’s true that other than Farooq and Stoops, the other OU wide receivers haven’t received a lot of playing time, but that is about the change.

In his Week 1 press briefing earlier this week, Lebby said:

"“I think we’re going to be able to play multiple guys (at wide receiver). That’s the best part of that group right now. I think we’ve got the chance to see about 6-7 guys.”"

The good news about that is the defense is not going to be able to key on just one or two receivers

Former walk-on Gavin Freeman, Nic Anderson, true freshman Jaquaize Pettaway and Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony have been impressive in preseason training camp, and all pack excellent speed. Anthony is one to watch when the Sooners throw deep. Others likely to see action early and as the season progresses are LV Bunkley-Shelton, a former Arizona State transfer, Jayden Gibson and D.J. Graham, who was recruited by Oklahoma as a wide receiver but was switched to defensive back. He’s back at his preferred position this season.

Lebby and wide receivers coach Emmett Jones are looking to see who among this group is going to step up this season and take the next step in their career development. My bet is, several will.

For these reasons, I believe what everyone thought could be a big problem coming into the 2023 season will, in reality, prove to be quite the opposite.