Did Brent Venables pick the right quarterback in Jackson Arnold?

Did Brent Venables pick the right quarterback in Jackson Arnold?

The progression has turned the transfer portal into full-blown free agency, forcing coaches to strategize in ways previously foreign to college football. Like trading one season of Dillon Gabriel for two seasons (hopefully and at least) of Jackson Arnold.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 10, 2023, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 10, 2023, 6:00am CST

NORMAN — When Dillon Gabriel entered the transfer portal, everyone seemed fine with it.

The Sooner coaching staff. OU fans. Gabriel himself.

At times like this, I feel like Vince Lombardi. “What the hell’s going on out here?” Lombardi yelled at the Packers one cold Sunday afternoon.

Seems like the state of Oklahoma could use ol’ Vince about now. What is going on?

How did we get to the point where losing the All-Big 12 quarterback, one of the nation’s best QBs, a salty southpaw with the chutzpah to lead the Sooners through the lion’s den of the SEC, is just fine for OU’s football fortunes?

This is new territory in the transfer age. We had the graduate transfer. We had the immediate-eligibility transfer. We had the Name/Image/Likeness revolution.

The progression has turned the transfer portal into full-blown free agency, and with it has come all the trappings associated with professional free agency. Including implementing strategic measures that previously were foreign to college football.

Like trading one season of Dillon Gabriel for two seasons (hopefully and at least) of Jackson Arnold.

Isn’t that what Brent Venables just did?

Venables said Gabriel was dead set on going to the National Football League after this season. That worked fine for OU’s timeline; Arnold would take over in 2024. It seemed all very neatly arranged.

But Gabriel changed his mind after apparently receiving less-than-stellar draft grades from pro scouts. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering Gabriel is about 5-foot-9 and void of the rocket arm of, say, Kyler Murray. 

A quarterback with Gabriel’s height and arm can be a star in college football. He would need to add sorcerer to his résumé to be an NFL star. 

So Gabriel plans to stay in the college game. That would seem to produce glad tidings of great joy in Soonerville. Gabriel would be on every short list of preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. With a slate of big games (Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana State, Ole Miss, Alabama), Gabriel would have the opportunity to blow his horn on many a 2024 Saturday.

Instead, Gabriel entered the transfer portal, and announced Saturday that he’ll continue his college career with the Oregon Ducks.

OU’s initial trek through the Southeastern Conference figures to be treacherous. Not impassable. But treacherous. You would think a star quarterback with 50(!) career games and 125 touchdown passes would be of utmost value to avoiding the fate of the Donner Party.

But no.

The Jackson Arnold Era has arrived, almost surely in the December 28 Alamo Bowl against Arizona.

Arnold is the 5-star recruit from Denton, Texas, who for a couple of years has been billed as the Next Big Thing. The most favored Sooner historically has been Heisman-winning (or near) quarterbacks. The silver medalist in that beauty pageant has been the up-and-coming backup wearing the laurel wreath bestowed by recruiting beatniks.

You know the list well. Brent Rawls. Tommy Grady. Rhett Bomar. Blake Bell. Spencer Rattler. Those were the 21st-century 5-stars before Arnold. No statues on that list. An All-Big 12 pick (Rattler 2020), a Holiday Bowl most valuable player plaque (Bomar 2005) and a win at Notre Dame/Bedlam rally (Bell 2012, 2013). That’s about it.

No reason Arnold can’t supersede those crests. Maybe he indeed will be the best of Baker Mayfield, Murray and Jalen Hurts combined. Departed offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby apparently has told OU boosters for a year that Arnold is the real deal.

But until we see it, the lessons of Rawls and Romar remain in the frontal lobes.

Which makes Venables’ choice of Arnold over Gabriel a fascinating decision. And that’s what it was, right? 

I know that Venables told us Thursday in the Alamo Bowl press conference that Gabriel could have returned to Norman.

“Dillon knows certainly he was more than welcome to stay, continue to compete, be the quarterback at the University of Oklahoma,” Venables said. “But that’s just what decision he came to.”

But doesn’t strike you as odd? Gabriel was settled, he was a hero, he was set to keep doing great things in Norman. Unless he was told the quarterback competition would be open, which would be code for the Sooners believing Arnold might take over.

“I think one of the things that he’ll comment about is he went through something similar at UCF with a quarterback there,” Venables said. “He knows the uniqueness of the situation.”

I wonder what Venables is talking about? At Central Florida, Gabriel started as a 2019 freshman, after two-year starter McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome knee injury in November 2018 that basically ruined his career. And Gabriel suffered a broken clavicle three games into the 2021 season; he never played for UCF again, and Mikey Keene finished out the season as the Knights’ quarterback.

Gabriel transferred to OU in January 2022. Was Venables referring to Keene scaring off Gabriel? That’s kooky. 

John Rhys Plumlee announced on January 9, 2022, that he was transferring from Ole Miss to UCF. That was six days after Gabriel declared for OU, so again, that doesn’t seem anything like Gabriel/Arnold.

So who knows? 

And it’s hard to defend the idea that OU would be better off in SEC Year 1 with Arnold rather than Gabriel.

But perhaps Venables made a multi-year decision. If Gabriel returned in 2024, Arnold almost surely would have hit the portal. He’d be off to Southern Cal or Mississippi State or no telling where. A quarterback of his potential isn’t going to spend two years sitting. This isn’t 1986.

Two years of Arnold might trump one year of Gabriel, if Arnold breaks the Sooners’ 5-star slump (curse?). Maybe Venables sees 2025 as the year the Sooners are SEC ready, though I have no idea how any coach anywhere knows what will happen two years hence, with portal madness in vogue.

Heck, the 2-for-1 trade is risky even if Arnold indeed  blossoms. Would such a coronation keep him around in 2025? Probably, but you can’t count on it. The portal is wild, I’m telling you.

For all we know, NIL is part of all this. Maybe OU can afford only one quarterback at a time and chose to pay Arnold. Or maybe the Sooners lost a bidding war. Anything’s possible in the murky world of NIL.

All we know is the Sooners are headed for the SEC, having lost a sure-shot quarterback, one of the nation’s best, for a quarterback who comes highly touted but is unproven. Venables needs Arnold to be the Next Big Thing.

 

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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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