NORMAN — The questions hovered over Dillon Gabriel since Jan. 5 when he announced his intention to return for another season.
How much better could he be in Year 2 with the Sooners? Would he be more accurate downfield and efficient on pressure downs back for another season in Jeff Lebby’s system? Could he make up for what OU lost in playmakers Eric Gray, Marvin Mims and Brayden Willis?
Early answers have emerged. Gabriel is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
Gabriel capped non-conference play Saturday at Tulsa with one of the sharpest performances of his Sooners career. His 90% completion percentage in the 66-17 win marked a career-high. Only once since transferring to OU — in a 449-yard, six-touchdown performance at Texas Tech last fall — has Gabriel turned in a better statline than the 421 yards and five touchdowns he poured on the Golden Hurricane to earn Big 12 Offensive Play of the Week honors.
Gabriel leads the nation in completion percentage at 82.5%, a decimal point above Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy (82.4) and ahead of Heisman Trophy contenders Shedeur Sanders (78.7%), Caleb Williams (78.6%) and Michael Penix Jr. (74.3).
His 11 touchdowns surpass any three-game stretch during his time in Norman and are tied for fourth nationally, trailing only Williams, Pennix and Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman.
Gabriel’s 11.3 yards per attempt sit sixth-best among FBS quarterbacks. Only Williams (240.5) owns a better passing efficiency rating across the country than OU’s 5-foot-11 passer.
“I think he’s in a comfort level right now that he wasn’t in this time last year,” Lebby explained Monday morning. “…He had to go through some things last year that were hard. And I think that’s matured him in a way to have a really stern edge about him in how he’s preparing and playing with a chip on his shoulder.”
A look at Gabriel’s stat between comparison between the Sooners’ first three games this season and last offers another window into his improvement:
2022 (UTEP-Kent State-Nebraska): 66.6%, 759 yards, 7 TD, 0 INT
2023 (Ark. State-SMU-Tulsa): 82.5%, 905 yards, 11 TD, 1 INT
One explanation for Gabriel’s step up can be found in his intermediate and deep ball passing. Lebby and Gabriel spent the spring and summer harping on improving the quarterback’s passing efficiency and accuracy in 2023. That’s happening on his downfield throws.
Gabriel has owned the middle of the field completing 28 of 34 passes for 576 yards and seven touchdowns between the numbers.
He’s connecting downfield more frequently, too.
Per Pro Football Focus, Gabriel completed 53.1% of his intermediate passes (10-19 yards) and 40.6% of his deep throws (20 yards or more) last fall. So far in 2023? Gabriel has hit on 75% of his intermediate passes and completed 61.5% of his deep balls.
OU’s quarterback appears to have made a jump in 2023, among the surest signs yet the Sooners could have the ingredients to make a jump of their own this fall.
It’s been three games. Two of them have been settled by a combined margin of 122 points. Yet the small sample size shows OU might be on its way to achieving the third-down turnaround it set out to achieve in 2023.
Gabriel and the Sooners’ offense converted on 16 of its 36 third-down attempts (44.4%) in Weeks 1-3 last fall. Over the course of the full season, that percentage dropped to 40.5% that ranked 42nd in the nation.
Three weeks into 2023, the Sooners lead the nation on third-down, converting on 25 of 37 (67.6%) of their attempts thus far.
Flip it to the defense and the results are perhaps even more significant.
Last fall, opposing offenses converted on 40.8% (80-of-205) of their third-down attempts against an OU defense that ranked 81st nationally in the category. In three games in 2023, the Sooners have trimmed that percentage to 29.7% (14-of-47) on third down.
Efficiency was the buzzword of OU’s offseason. The Sooners have found it on third down in the early going this fall.
Run defense working
Brent Venables said he wanted OU to cut its run yards per carry against number in half this fall. It’s early days but the Sooners’ run defense is on its way to achieving that goal.
OU is allowing 2.3 yards per carry through three games, good for 11th nationally. It’s a big step for a Sooners defense that finished 95th among FBS defenses last fall giving up 4.5 yards per attempt on the ground.
Worth considering here is that all three of the offenses OU has faced rank in the bottom half of the country in rushing. A better test of where the Sooners are at comes in Week 4 against a Cincinnati offense that ranks eighth in rushing yards per game (239.3).
“Our ability to beat blocks, fit, tackle is going to be a big, big deal because they’re very physical in what they do,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said Monday.
Run game not so much
It wasn’t until the trip to Tulsa that OU had Gavin Sawchuk fully healthy and in turn a fully stocked running back unit. Yet the Sooners’ rushing attack still hasn’t kicked into gear.
OU is still waiting on a run game that led the Big 12 in total yardage and hit 4.9 yards per carry last fall to come to life. The unit expected to lean primarily on Tawee Walker, Marcus Major, Jovantae Barnes and Sawchuk is trailing last year’s pace at 4.3 yards.
“The run game — we need more production from that standpoint,” Lebby said. “We also need to create some explosives at times in the run game so we’ll look forward to that being a part of who we are as we’re moving forward, as well.”
It’s important production for OU considering Lebby and Co. ran the football more than any other Big 12 offense in 2022. Another chance comes for the run game Saturday in a meeting with a Cincinnati defense that held Miami (Ohio) to 4.1 yards per attempt in a 31-24 loss Saturday.