Berry says: Step aside, Belldozer, Jackson Arnold has arrived

Berry says: Step aside, Belldozer, Jackson Arnold has arrived

Berry Tramel: True freshman Jackson Arnold doesn’t figure to dislodge OU incumbent quarterback Dillon Gabriel, but Arnold looks like he can help in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 2, 2023, 8:15pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 2, 2023, 8:15pm CDT

NORMAN — Jackson Arnold said he wasn’t nervous. Why should he be? He entered the game with a 45-0 lead.

But funny thing. The OU freshman quarterback said he’s always nervous before ballgames. Not throw-up nervous. Not freak-out nervous. But butterfly nervous. We all know the feeling, whether it’s a ballgame or a first date or zipping past a patrol car going 55 in a 40 mile per hour zone.“Honestly, it was kind of weird,” Arnold said of his OU debut Saturday. “Today, once I started throwing in pregame, I felt fine. Nerves settled down. By the time I got in the game, I felt really calm.”

Too calm, Arnold figures. The Sooners were en route to a 73-0 rout of Arkansas State, and two series (and two touchdown drives) into Arnold’s career, the Red Wolves had barely laid a hand on him, same as they barely touched starting QB Dillon Gabriel.

So Arnold had a chat with offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Arnold wanted to get hit.“I honestly told him I wanted to run the ball,” Arnold said. “He said, ‘we can do that.’”

Lebby didn’t have to draw anything on a whiteboard. He had a plan ready.

For five straight plays, the Sooners lined up with a solitary wide receiver to each side, with a couple of tight ends otherwise anchoring a power formation. Arnold bulled for 11 yards, then for four. Freshman Daylan Smothers took consecutive handoffs from Arnold, and finally Arnold scored from seven yards out on another keeper.

And I started thinking what you started thinking.

The Sooners have another Belldozer.

Oh, Arnold is not anything physically like Blake Bell, OU’s 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback from a decade ago, who became a short-yardage phenom in 2011 and 2012 before ending up as a National Football League tight end. Blake Bull was more like it.

But Arnold is a solid 6-1, 216, with nifty feet and no stranger to contact.

I assume Lebby already has Arnold entrenched as a short-yardage quarterback when the games get tight, even if Lebby denies it.

“No, I wanted to get him dirtied up a little bit, get him playing football,” Lebby deadpanned. “I didn’t want him coming into the locker room with a perfectly clean outfit on. He needed to go play ball, and it happened.”

The Sooners didn’t get much out of playing Arkansas State. A game this one-sided should never happen, and when it does, it’s a wasted Saturday for team development. But if OU can come out the blowout with more assurance that Arnold can spell the diminutive Gabriel on the goal line, then this was not a wasted season opener.

Arkansas State is no great test case. But a quarterback who can handle himself in the trenches against any Division I-A foe is not common.

“I’ve personally loved running the ball, ever since I was little,” Arnold said. “When I moved out to Texas (from Georgia at age 10), I actually became a running back for a little while, so running the ball is like second nature to me.”

And maybe using Arnold as a Belldozer (let’s have a naming contest; email me at [email protected] with your ideas) will keep the students at bay.

The last time OU had a freshman quarterback with the hype of Arnold, the Sooner student section serenaded the field with chants for Caleb Williams, and just because they were right didn’t make it any more couth. In Dallas, Williams replaced the reigning all-Big 12 quarterback, Spencer Rattler, and stole not just the job but the State Fair of Texas, too.

Don’t expect the same thing to happen in 2023, in part because of that lightning-strike-twice thing and in part because Gabriel is a supreme leader (Rattler didn’t seem to be) and looked pristine against Arkansas State.

“I just keep my head down and grinding, keep working my butt off, soak up everything I can while Dillon’s here,” Arnold said. “Just learning from his success and his mistakes will only help me in the future. My time isn’t this year, because Dillon’s here, but these next couple years, they’re going to ask me to step up and be the face of this program. So just knowing that Coach (Brent) V(enables), I have his trust early on, is huge for me.”


Gabriel was superb against Arkansas State, completing 19 of 22 passes for 308 yards in one half, with great touch on his seven deep balls. True, Arnold completed all 11 of his passes, but only one could be considered downfield.

“We expect him to play really well, but he expects himself to play really well, too,” Lebby said. “He played clean, took care of the football, he made good decisions. He pushed the tempo when we needed to and he was able to handle himself and do a really nice job when we were able to pull back a little bit. So that was the expectation. He played well.”

I’ve been saying it for almost 12 months. Gabriel is the least of OU’s problems. He might be the Big 12’s best quarterback this side of Kansas’ Jalon Daniels, and the Gabriel/Arnold combo might be the Big 12’s QB situation this side of KU, which also sports spiffy backup Jason Bean.And if Arnold can be a touchdown machine near the goal line or a first-down producer in short yardage, all the better.

“I don’t know,” Lebby said. “We’ll see.”

Arnold turned 19 Saturday. Happy birthday. He said he didn’t know what time of day he was born back in 2004, so with an 11 a.m. kickoff, it was almost 50/50 that he technically hadn’t turned 19 when he took the field to a rousing ovation from what was left of the over-baked crowd.

And soon enough, Lebby and Arnold went from in-game chatting to post-game hugging. Their embrace wasn’t much about beating Arkansas State 73-0, it was about that which is to come.

“Yeah, just the first one’s special,” Lebby said. “It was special for me and Dillon, talking about it last night and this morning, the first last one, you know? And so understanding that with both those guys, just love the heck out of them, feel incredibly lucky to be able to coach them every single day.

“So it was great just for those guys to have the success they had today.”

Success virtually was assured for any OU quarterback as soon as this game was scheduled. But the Sooners found a nugget in a pile of plays that mostly don’t mean squat. Their backup quarterback, who can sling it for sure, looks like he also can get in a power formation and ram for two yards when two yards are needed.

The Bell tolls for Jackson Arnold.

Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma sports journalism. Before joining Sellout Crowd, he spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. Reach Berry at [email protected] and 405-760-8080.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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