Oklahoma football: Getting you ready for the 2023 season from A to Z

Fans cheer before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the West Virginia Mountaineers at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Oklahoma won 16-13.J6p1320
Fans cheer before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the West Virginia Mountaineers at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Oklahoma won 16-13.J6p1320 /

The long offseason wait is about over. Oklahoma football will kick off its 129th season on Saturday, and a 147th consecutive sellout is expected at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

We’ve put together a quick-read, A-to-Z preview and 26 reasons to be excited about the 2023 college football season, admittedly with a heavy for Oklahoma football bias.

A – The Sooners open the 2023 season against the Arkansas State Red Wolves. This is the third time these two teams have played each other in football. Oklahoma won both previous games: 61-0 in 1992 and 45-7 in 2000.

B – This is the final season for Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference. The Sooners have been a member of the Big 12 and all of its previous iterations since 1919, when the conference was known as the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. It became the Big 6 in 1928, the Big 7 in 1948, the Big 8 in 1960 and the Big 12 in 1996.

C – Oklahoma has won 50 conference championships. That is the most in college football. Nebraska is next with 46.

D – Poor defense has plagued the Sooners for the better part of the past decade. Improving OU’s defensive performance has been a major emphasis for Brent Venables and his staff, and we should be seeing the first appreciable results of that effort beginning this season.

E – Wide receivers coach Emmett Jones joined the OU coaching staff from Texas Tech this offseason. The Sooner had been without a permanent staffer at this important position since Cale Gundy was let go prior to the 2022 season. In addition to being an outstanding wide receivers’ coach, Jones is also known as an elite recruiter, and the Sooners have already been the beneficiary of that skill in their 2024 recruiting class.

F – One of the young, relatively unproven wide receivers who could have a breakout season for the Sooners in 2023 is sophomore Gavin Freeman. The Oklahoma City native had just three receptions as a true freshman last season, but his very first collegiate catch resulted in a 41-yard gain leading to a touchdown.

F/G – The Sooners are looking for better efficiency from placekicker Zach Schmit in his second full season kicking field goals at Oklahoma. Schmit was just 13 of 19 in field-goal attempts last season with a long of 44 yards but was a perfect 53 out of 53 in point-after kicks.

H – Redshirt-senior defensive back Justin Harrington is listed No. 1 on the OU depth chart at the “Cheetah” position (or hybrid defensive back/linebacker spot) in Brent Venables defensive alignment to start the season. Notably, Harrington beat out Indiana transfer Dasan McCullough, who all offseason was projected to be the starter at that spot. McCullough was reported to be the highest-rated recruit in Indiana football history.

I – As deplorable as the Sooner defense was a year ago, Oklahoma was among the national leaders with 17 interceptions, tied for the seventh most among the 131 FBS teams. Junior Billy Bowman was second on the team behind departed CB C.J. Colden (4) with three picks in 2022.

J – True freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold was the crown jewel in Oklahoma’s 2023 recruiting class and is clearly the Sooners’ future at this vital position. Brent Venables said at his Week 1 press conference on Tuesday that there is a plan in place to get Arnold in-game experience early in the season.

K – Sophomore Jaren Kanak is penciled in as the starting “Mike” or middle linebacker position to start the 2023 season. Kanak played mostly as a backup in the linebacker rotation a year ago. Kanak told reporters during preseason training camp recently that he was 100 percent more comfortable with the defensive system, understanding what’s going on around him, knowing his job as well as everyone else’s job. Brent Venables has always said that great defenses are always strong up the middle. Kanak’s growth and impact will be something to watch this fall.

L – In the offseason, Jonah Laulu was switched from defensive end to an interior role at defensive tackle. He will begin the 2023 season as the starter at tackle, a position the OU coaches believe is much more suited for his skills and strengths. Defensive line coach Todd Bates says Lalulu has added weight and gotten stronger. He was at around 265, but he’s now at 295. Lalulu says he’s actually able to play faster than he was before, which should be an added benefit now that he’s moved inside.

M – In one of the surprises on the Week 1 depth chart, fifth-year Sooner Marcus Major is listed as the No. 1 running back to start the season. Major has been plagued with injuries throughout his OU career. He’s gained only 525 total yards in his four previous seasons and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Running backs coach DeMarco Murray is hopeful that this is the season we are able to see what Major is capable of, and he begins the season with a clean bill of health.

N – The Big 12 welcomes four newcomers to the conference this season: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. The latter three are all from the American Athletic Conference. Oklahoma is 5-3 combined against the four new teams. The Sooners will play Cincinnati, BYU and UCF this season. OU has never played UCF, which is the former school of Dillon Gabriel and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Former Sooner quarterback and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel was head coach at UCF from 2018-20.

O – Oklahoma ranked 13th nationally last season in total offense, averaging 474 yards per game. With Dillon Gabriel returning at quarterback, the Sooners should be able to equal or even exceed that number in 2023. The following is how Oklahoma has ranked in total offense the past six seasons (beginning in 2017 and working forward): 1-1-3-11-18-13.

P – Costly penalties have been a big problem for Oklahoma football in recent seasons. In 2022, the Sooners ranked next to last in the Big 12, averaging between five and six penalties per game, many of the 15-yard variety, for over 50 yards. OU ranked 53rd among FBS teams in that department last season. This is something Brent Venables definitely wants to improve on going forward.

Q – The Sooners’ most productive quarter last season was the opening quarter in which they outscored their opponents by 43 points (132-89). They outscored their opponents 113-81 in the third quarter. OU was outscored in both the second and fourth quarters, by seven points in each, which spoke to a probable stamina and depth issue and the Sooners’ inability to close out either half.

R – There are 125 players on Oklahoma’s active roster to start the 2023 season. Sixty-five players are new to the roster this season. Fifty-two percent of the roster consists of first-year Sooners, 79 percent (or 99 players) are either first- or second-year Sooners.

S – Junior linebacker Danny Stutsman is one of the five team captains to start the season. He led the Big 12 and ranked 18th nationally with 125 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.

T – The annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas is Oct. 7 this season. The Longhorns, the favorite to win the Big 12 this season, according to the Big 12 Preseason Football Poll, annihilated Oklahoma by a score of 49-0 last season, the Sooners’ worst loss in the 118-game history of the series.

U – Oklahoma has played eight games in its history against teams from the state of Utah but has never played a game in Utah. That changes this season when the Sooners travel to Provo, Utah, for a Nov. 18 game against BYU. The Sooners and Cougars have played twice previously with OU losing both games.

VBrent Venables was 6-7 in his first season as OU head coach. Prior to last season, however, in 26 seasons of college coaching, his teams (Kansas State, Oklahoma and Clemson) have compiled a record of 290-57 and an .836 winning percentage.

W– Las Vegas oddsmakers project Oklahoma to win 9.5 games this season. No college team has more 11-win seasons that the Sooners’ 27, and no college team has more wins since the end of World War II than the 694 by Oklahoma.

X– The X-factor in a Brent Venables multiple defense is the player at the “Cheetah” position ( a hybrid position that combines the roles of linebacker, slot cornerback and safety). The two players to watch for in this role for Oklahoma this season are Justin Harrington and Dasan McCullough. McCullough is a transfer from Indiana, where he was reported to be the highest-rated recruit in the history of that program.

Y– The Y-receiver, or slot receiver, in the Oklahoma offense this season is Drake Stoops. Utilizing his COVID-year waiver and a redshirt season in 2018, this will be Stoops’ sixth season at Oklahoma. As the slot receiver, he is typically the go-to receiver in short-yardage and third-down possessions. Stoops caught 39 passes a year ago for 393 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 10.1 yards per reception, his best season as a collegian.

ZZach Schmit returns as the Sooners’ placekicker for the 2023 season. He connected successfully on 13 of 19 field-goal attempts last season and was 53 of 53 on extra-point tries.