Jackson Arnold likely would have been gone had Dillon Gabriel returned

Jackson Arnold likely would have been gone had Dillon Gabriel returned

The Jackson Arnold Era begins with the Dec. 28 Alamo Bowl against Arizona. And in his first interview since being knighted as the Sooner quarterback, Arnold didn’t blow smoke. He admitted his own future was on hold until Gabriel made a decision.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 12, 2023, 7:17pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 12, 2023, 7:17pm CST

NORMAN — Jackson Arnold says he was a little like the rest of us. Just waiting to find out what Dillon Gabriel was going to do about the 2024 football season.

Welcome to modern college football.

Gabriel, OU’s starting quarterback the last two seasons, announced last week he was entering the transfer portal and a few days later became an Oregon Duck.

That means the Arnold Era begins with the Dec.  28 Alamo Bowl against Arizona. And Tuesday, in his first interview since being knighted as the Sooner quarterback, Arnold didn’t blow smoke.

He admitted his own future was on hold until Gabriel made a decision.

“I was waiting on his decision,” Arnold said. “I didn’t know where he was going to go with his decision; portal or NFL or coming back another year. I really didn’t know.

“I’m super happy for Dillon and he’s got a great opportunity and a great future ahead of him.”

Uh, the same appears to be the case for Arnold. But if Gabriel had come back for a third Sooner season, seems likely Arnold’s great opportunity and great future would be elsewhere.

You know, I would’ve had to evaluate where I was at here for sure,” Arnold said on the OU practice field. “I was not swayed either which way on what I would’ve done, but obviously when something like that happens you have to take a step back and see.”

Impressive talk from Arnold, who didn’t try to sell us snake oil. Of course Arnold would have had to assess his situation. Almost certainly he would have been gone. Quarterback prospects like this aren’t in the habit of sitting around two years, waiting to play. The transfer portal gives them too many options; the name, image, likeness bonanza gives them too many carrots to chase.

But the OU coaching staff’s apparent preference for Arnold is a rousing endorsement for the true freshman from Denton, Texas.

Having the coaches’ trust is a huge thing for me,” Arnold said.

Arnold is an impressive personality, especially for a 19-year-old. He’s not cocky or gregarious, but he is confident and personable. He didn’t duck tough questions. Arnold seems to be the total package, so long as he can play, and early indications are that he most definitely can play.

Arnold feels fortified by what he says will be an Alamo Bowl gameplan unchanged from what we would have seen with Gabriel.

“Knowing that the coaches are trusting of me to go out and perform my best, and they’re not changing the game plan whatsoever, we’re running the same stuff,” Arnold said. “We would’ve run the same stuff if Dillon was here too, so just that trust they have in me is really special to me.”

Arnold won’t be quarterbacking a well-tuned roadster in San Antonio. The transfer portal and early defections to the NFL Draft means OU’s offense will be short-handed at both tailback and on the offensive line. Plus offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is off to Mississippi State as head coach, with Seth Littrell moving up.

Not ideal for breaking in a new quarterback, a freshman to boot, but again, that’s college football 2023. Deal with it.

I’ve watched Jackson since he’s been here,” said OU receiver Jalil Farooq. “I’ve watched him grow up. Him stepping up in the room, I’m very excited to see him play in the bowl game. I can’t wait until he showcases his talent. He’s a great dude, a great leader. He can sling it.”

The Sooners can’t seem to have a normal Alamo Bowl. They went to San Antonio two years ago with an interim head coach, Bob Stoops, with Brent Venables waiting in the wings, and with a quarterback, Caleb Williams, who was out the door even though we didn’t know it. Offensive assistant Cale Gundy was the interim coordinator for that 47-32 victory over Oregon.

Now the Sooners play Arizona with their head coach in place, but with a new coordinator and a new quarterback. Welcome to the new world bowl order.

“The first two practices, yesterday and the day before, were a little off, you know, having a new OC, not having DIllon here,” Arnold said. “The energy was off a little bit, but I think today was big for us as a group getting our mojo back and kind of getting things rolling around.”

How could things not be off? Gabriel gone. Lebby gone. Others gone. It’s not necessarily a different season, but it’s like a new team. A new team quarterbacked by a true freshman.

“It’s a weird position for me to now step up and be a leader in that position,” Arnold said “Now I feel like I have to step up and be a vocal leader and be the glue for this offense in the bowl game.”

Arnold seems capable.

He’s definitely a leader,” said tailback Gavin Sawchuk. “It’s easy to tell when you’re around people that are just there to play and are leading the team. He definitely has that. He’s leading the team. I completely trust him.”

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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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