Consummate backup: The story of OU freshman Jackson Arnold’s last experience as second-string quarterback

Consummate backup: The story of OU freshman Jackson Arnold’s last experience as second-string quarterback

Oklahoma’s starting quarterback job belongs to Dillon Gabriel, for now.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Aug 31, 2023, 8:19pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Aug 31, 2023, 8:19pm CDT

NORMAN — Dillon Gabriel is Oklahoma’s quarterbacking present, entrusted to steward the Sooners through the choppy wake of their first losing season since 1998.

Behind him is a window to the future in five-star freshman Jackson Arnold.

Arnold has made a considerable early impression with his arm talent, poise and understanding of the game since arriving on campus in January. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby considers him as the future face of the program. And when OU enters the Southeastern Conference in 2024, it may very well come with 6-foot-1 passer under center.

In the meantime, one of the nation’s most coveted young quarterbacks will settle into a role he last filled as a Denton (Texas) Guyer High School sophomore.

His Guyer coach called him the consummate backup.

“He may have been the greatest backup quarterback in the history of Texas high school football his sophomore year,” said Rodney Webb, Arnold’s coach at Guyer.

If all goes according to plan, Arnold will play less football this fall than in any season since 2020.

By then, he was already attracting attention from top programs across the country. Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Notre Dame represented some of the first callers. Around the same time, Lebby — then calling plays at Ole Miss — was planting the roots of the relationship that would ultimately help pull Arnold to OU.

The heights Arnold would eventually reach were no secret then. Nick Saban’s interest was already piqued. Yet Arnold spent most of that fall on the sideline while senior Eli Stowers, a future Texas A&M signee who later transferred to New Mexico State, got every Friday night start.

“Jackson didn’t play a ton his sophomore year,” Webb said. “The amount he did play was all those college coaches needed to see. It was on. He was highly recruited before he ever took a snap as a starter.”

Arnold would go on to torch secondaries across Texas for 7,500 passing yards over the next two years. But his sophomore season was reserved for watching, listening and making the most of his limited opportunities.

Webb said Arnold was extraordinarily patient in his approach in 2020. Coaches remember him as outspoken in meeting rooms and unceasingly consistent in practice. He asked loads of questions and kept mental notes.

And Arnold made a point to draw on the experience of the guy in front of him, too, studying Stowers the same way he’s mined tidbits from Gabriel since he arrived in Norman.

“Learning from him and watching his game has helped me out a ton,” Arnold said last month of Gabriel. “It’s just little things that he does whether it’s footwork or reads. I can ask him, ‘What’d you see there? Why’d you do this? Why’d you do that?’ It’s helped me out a lot so far.”When Arnold got his opportunities, he took advantage.

His first shot came in the fourth quarter of a 56-33 win over Hebron in Week 1. Denton Guyer went empty formation. Webb called quarterback draw up the middle and Arnold took it 80 yards for a touchdown.

“Ran through a couple of tackles and got in the open field and just dusted everybody,” Webb said.

Even in relief, Arnold looked the part of an eventual Texas High School Player of the Year.

As long as he’s serving as Gabriel’s backup this fall, Arnold’s role won’t be dissimilar.

His OU debut will come as or when the Sooners build a comfortable enough lead in Saturday’s opener with Arkansas State. OU’s coaching staff has been guarded with its plans for the young quarterback but there is a clear emphasis on exposing Arnold early and finding opportunities for growth.

Beyond the early opportunities, Lebby will be looking for his freshman quarterback to do many of the same things Arnold did in his last backup role.

“As lame as it may sound it is literally about getting every single rep,” Lebby said. “Whether it’s mental or physical. Every single day in practice. Getting every single rep regardless of who I’m coaching in the film room. And it is truly that simple. It’s monotonous.”

Following a season watching from the sidelines in 2020, Arnold stepped in the next fall to complete 66.5% of his passes for 34 touchdowns and just under 4,000 yards leading a Denton Guyer offense that got even better with No. 11 running the show.

The Sooners likely envision a similar ideal scenario in which Gabriel carries OU through 14 starts this fall, then hands over the reins.

“There’s no doubt that Dillon is our undisputed quarterback for all the reasons that y’all know,” Brent Venables said this week. “But we know that Dillon won’t be here next year so we’ve got to prepare for that day as well.”

There is recent precedent to suggest Arnold’s opportunity could come sooner. Fans need only look back two seasons for the last time a freshman (see Caleb Williams) unseated an established quarterback in Norman.

Whenever his chance comes, Arnold has a track record to suggest he’ll be equipped for it.

“There’s no question in my mind he’s going to be prepared,” Webb said. “If and when his opportunity comes to get off the field, he’s going to be ready for the moment.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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