NORMAN — Take your pick on who Oklahoma’s next play-caller might be.
Sooners offensive analyst Seth Littrell remains a front-runner among the internal candidates. Fellow analyst Matt Wells and wide receivers coach Emmett Jones are other options with play-calling experience on Brent Venables’ staff.
Outside of Norman, options range far and wide.
LSU’s Mike Denbrock, Utah’s Andy Ludwig and Kansas’ Andy Kotelnicki rank among some of the nation’s top play-callers. Colorado’s Sean Lewis remains among the most highly-regarded offensive minds. The Sooners were linked Monday with interest in UNLV offensive coordinator Brennan Marion and could pursue any number of young offensive coordinators to fill one of the top jobs in the country.
Dana Holgorsen, recently freed up in Houston, stands as a morbidly intriguing, if highly unlikely candidate.
We’ll know who OU’s next offensive coordinator is soon. Whoever gets the nod, they’ll be charged with maintaining and evolving an offense that closed the regular season third in scoring (43.2 points), fourth in total offense (502.4 yards) and sixth in passing yards (321.8) prior to Jeff Lebby’s departure for Mississippi State.
They’ll also inherit an offense with plenty of holes to be patched as OU dives into the SEC and likely a new era at quarterback. Let’s dive into the checklist items the Sooners’ next offensive play-caller needs to tackle in 2024.
Continue to put up big numbers
For the qualms OU fans might have had with Lebby’s situational play-calling or any off-field concerns, the statistics spoke for themselves.
The Sooners’ jumped from the 33rd-ranked offense in the nation in 2022 to No. 4, cracking 50-plus points five times and with a +20.9 margin of victory that ranks sixth nationally. It was on the basis of those numbers that Lebby landed an SEC head coaching job.
The advanced stats loved Lebby’s offense, too.
ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a “tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency”, lists the Sooners with the sixth-ranked offense in the country this fall. OU’s predicted points added — a stat that measures points added or lost on each play compared to the predicted value — closed better than all but seven offenses in the country.
Lebby’s offense lit up scoreboards more often than not. His replacement would be well served to do the same.
Continue to recruit quarterbacks
Lebby’s fingerprints could conceivably remain over a near decade of OU quarterbacking when all is said and done.
He was responsible for pulling Dillon Gabriel from the transfer portal in 2022. Within two months of arriving in Norman, he secured the commitment of five-star prospect Jackson Arnold, OU’s presumptive Day 1 starter in 2024. Down the line, there’s 2024 four-star quarterback Michael Hawkins and 2025 four-star Kevin Sperry, two more Lebby commits.
Arnold’s presence should secure the Sooners’ immediate future at quarterback. OU will likely target another passer via the transfer portal assuming Dillon Gabriel is not on the roster 2024. And the nature of recruiting in the modern world calls for programs to add at least one quarterback in each high school signing class.
OU’s next offensive coordinator should hope to be as successful in continuing the Sooners’ quarterback pipeline as Lebby was in 23 months.
Figuring out time of possession and game balance
Tempo is a staple of a Lebby offense. It’s part of why the Sooners put up more points per game than all but two offenses. It’s also why they finished 127th in average time of possession (26:11) nationally in 2022.
That mark improved for OU in 2023, up to No. 84 (29:06). But that kind of pace on offense is tough on a defense, and Venables surely knows it. The Sooners defended the 12th most plays per game (72.6) during the regular season.
Can the OU’s next offensive coordinator strike a better balance?
Good teams don’t need to control possession to win games. Three of the top five teams in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings — Ohio State, Washington and Florida State — sit in the bottom half of the country in time of possession.
But the Sooners’ TOP numbers over the past two seasons have been pretty stark.
OU won the possession battle in two of 24 regular season games with Lebby in the booth — Arkansas State and Iowa State, both this season. In Venables’ eight regular-season losses, OU lost the TOP battle by an average margin of 8:10.
Venables has placed a constant emphasis on playing complementary football. His next play-caller could help on that with a slower tempo.
The lament around Lebby’s offense was about how the Sooners executed in key moments. (See: 2023 losses at Kansas and Oklahoma State).
Beneath the conservative play-calling at Kansas and late-game struggles in Stillwater, there are numbers that reflect OU’s struggles when it mattered most.
Across 12 regular season games, the Sooners had 67 possessions when leading by seven points or more and came away with points on 38 of those series. As Sooner Scoop’s George Stoia pointed out earlier this month, 18 of those successful scoring drives came against Arkansas State and Tulsa. Another 14 came in OU’s late-season routs of West Virginia and TCU.
Outside of its blowout wins, the Sooners failed often to put teams away when given the opportunity. The next evolution of OU’s offense must come with a killer instinct.
Another element to Lebby’s credit is the success he achieved this fall after losing so many key pieces following the 2022 season.
Down running back Eric Gray, wide receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease and tight end Brayden Willis, Lebby and the Sooners returned for 2023 missing critical skill players without like-for-like replacements at their respective positions.
Drake Stoops and Jalil Farooq led the way in the passing game. Tawee Walker carried the run game first, then Gavin Sawchuk picked up the slack. It was enough to fuel one of the nation’s most productive offenses, but these were not the Riley-era Sooners of CeeDee Lamb, Hollywood Brown and Rhamondre Stevenson.
OU’s depth was always going to be thin in the early years of the Venables era. The Sooners’ 2023 class and the 2024 signing class they’ll close on next month will help the matter. As OU settles into the SEC, padding the depth of the Sooners offense will be part of the job for the next coordinator.
Establishing an identity
The identity of Lebby’s offense was tempo … then what?
Did you know what the Sooners were going to do when they needed a first down in the fourth quarter at Kansas? How about in the closing stages at OSU? What, exactly, was the bread and butter of Lebby’s OU offense?
It’s a question that remains in his wake as Lebby lands in Starkville. Identifying a true identity will be a key question for whoever the next play-caller is to answer.
Gallery: OU’s 69-45 win over TCU in pictures