Sellout Crowd Rundown: What’s at stake for OU against Arkansas State

Sellout Crowd Rundown: What’s at stake for OU against Arkansas State

Saturday provides Oklahoma its first opportunity to go from saying things are different in 2023 to proving it on the field.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Aug 31, 2023, 6:52pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Aug 31, 2023, 6:52pm CDT

NORMAN — Oklahoma begins its last football season as a member of the Big 12 Conference with a visit from Arkansas State at 11 a.m. (ESPN) Saturday. Let’s talk about it.

What’s at stake

I’ll borrow a sentiment my colleague Guerin Emig shared this week on the inaugural episode of the Lederman Jacket, my OU podcast here at Sellout Crowd: With all due respect to the Red Wolves of Arkansas State, and SMU and Tulsa, the first three weeks are about Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma.

The Sooners are coming off their first losing season in 25 years. Brent Venables steps back onto Owen Field with the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class and an impressive collection of transfers, but still needing to deliver a convincing showing before OU jumps to the SEC. 

These weeks ahead of the Sooners’ Sept. 23 Big 12 opener at Cincinnati offer Venables and Co. a chance to go from saying things are different this year to proving it’s so. 

The Sooners can begin to prove that a defense Venables admits “got bullied around and beat up too much” last fall will take a jump in his second year.

They can prove that an offense that lost a collection of key skill players can still improve with Dillon Gabriel under center and Jeff Lebby calling the plays. 

They can make early strides in proving that Venables is the coach to lead the program into the SEC and that OU will be equipped to hang when it gets there.

And, on the more pressing matter of their final Big 12 season season, the Sooners aren’t wearing t-shirts with the Dec. 2 date of the conference title game on the back around the team facility for nothing. 

“If we just get better on defense, we’re going to win 10-plus games and have a chance to compete and hang a banner up at the end of the year,” Venables said.

Three things that intrigue me

Defense: Ted Roof remains the Sooners’ defensive play caller. Venables intends to be “completely involved defensively.”

“Not that they need my help,” Venables said. “But that’s what I know. That’s how I got to this position. And I think a year ago (I) was certainly involved but not to the depth that I think that I felt like I needed to be after evaluating all of it.”

Once a three-time national champion coordinator, Venables’ teams will always be judged against his defenses. Let’s take a first glance at what this overhauled defense looks like. 

Tawee and the running backs: That’s a pretty good name for a band right there. Second-year walkon Tawee Walker represented the biggest depth chart surprise when he was listed as a co-starter.

It’s a pretty cool story. An unheralded recruit out of Centennial (Arizona) High School, Walker went prep school to junior college. Last fall, he carried just 18 times for 62 yards in his debut season at OU. 

On Saturday, the rusher who describes himself as a strong, downhill back who runs through people will get his shot. 

“I think I’ve belonged here since I decided to go to junior college,” Walker said. “You just have to bet on yourself. You have to always think that you belong wherever you believe you belong. You just have to show that you’re capable.”

Walker and Marcus Major are the listed co-starters in the Sooners’ backfield Saturday in a rotation that will include sophomores Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk and first-year rusher’s Daylan Smothers and Kalib Hicks.

Arnold’s debut? There’s no telling when or how. But Saturday will almost certainly feature freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold’s debut. 

The five-star passer begins his OU career listed as Gabriel’s backup. If (or when) the Sooners grow a large enough lead on Arkansas State, Arnold will be the first quarterback to come on in relief. 

“We’ll continue to work through that,” Lebby said. “We want to try every way imaginable to create growth when those opportunities come up.”

Two things I’ll be watching

Redshirt sophomore Savion Byrd has earned praise for his ability, consistency and maturity. He’ll make his second career start at left guard.

Instincts, physicality and experience are traits Venables said made Texas Tech transfer Reggie Pearson a fit for the Sooners’ secondary. He walks into Saturday as the co-starter at free safety with Kay Lawrence.

One thing from the opposing locker room

Red Wolves coach Butch Jones waited until Tuesday to name veteran transfer J.T. Shrout his starting quarterback. Even that declaration wasn’t especially firm.

“We call it an organizational chart,” Jones said after releasing the team’s depth chart. “All that means is who is going to take the first rep … in terms of the quarterback situation, J.T. Shrout will start the game.” 

Redshirt freshman Jaxon Dailey and first-year Jaylen Raynor back up Shrout, a former Tennessee and Colorado quarterback.

A question I’ve got

How much can we trust early results on defense? 

OU tallied 13 sacks in its torrid three-game run through non conference play last fall. Then, when Big 12 competition arrived, the Sooners’ defense fell off a cliff.

We should be able to identify differences in the defense in the coming weeks. We should also take a measured approach in evaluating it at least until conference play begins.

A prediction

I don’t do game predictions … so I’ll say OU will finish with 10-plus pass catchers against Arkansas State.

Lebby said this week he expects to see “six or seven guys” contribute at wide receiver. Let’s pencil in catches for Jalil Farooq, Drake Stoops, Gavin Freeman, Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, tight end Austin Stogner and two pass catchers out of the backfield. 

That leaves us needing receptions from three more Sooners among wide receivers LV Bunkley-Shelton, Jayden Gibson, Nic Anderson, Jaquaize Pettaway, backup tight end Blake Smith and others. I think OU gets there.

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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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