Remember the Alamo? Jackson Arnold deals with a disappointing debut

Remember the Alamo? Jackson Arnold deals with a disappointing debut

That rough night in San Antonio doesn’t have to define Jackson Arnold’s career.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 27, 2024, 7:30am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 27, 2024, 7:30am CDT

NORMAN — Jackson Arnold had a miserable Alamo Bowl. There’s no other way to say it.

The future Sooner quarterback became the present Sooner quarterback when Dillon Gabriel transferred to Oregon last December, and Arnold’s Alamo Bowl against Arizona was a dress rehearsal for the historic 2024 season.

It did not go well. Think junior-high musical dress rehearsal. Arnold did some good things, but he also committed four turnovers — three interceptions and a fumble — and another turnover initially was ruled an interception before it was changed to a Jalil Farooq fumble.

OU’s six turnovers total will get you beat most games, and that happened in San Antonio. Arizona won 38-24, tempering excitement over Arnold.

But Arnold adeptly handled the mental gymnastics of such a disappointing debut.

“Yeah,” Arnold said Monday night after an OU spring practice. “Delete social media. No, seriously, I stayed off of it after that. I’m still off of social media. I try to stay away from it all.”

Good move. Arnold clearly wasn’t in prime mode vs. Arizona. But neither was he a bust. Had Farooq held onto the ball that was changed from an interception to a fumble, OU would have had a 31-13 lead in the third quarter, victory would have been quite likely and Arnold’s debut would look completely different.

No reason to let one game, much less one pass, determine Arnold’s potential, which remains as vast as ever.

“I’ve seen Jackson grow a lot, man,” Farooq said. “I’ve watched him come in. He’s going to be a great leader. He’s been leading a lot, taking control of this team. I’m excited to see him out there.”

Leadership has been key for Arnold. He’s stepped into Gabriel’s Air Jordans and assumed the mantel. More vocal. More accountable.

Which takes us back to San Antonio.

“I think for me, to step into the leadership role, I had to admit my mistakes and where I went wrong to further connect with the dudes on the team and kind of tell these guys, ‘Hey, I messed up,’” Arnold said. “But going forward, that was 2023, it’s 2024 now. It’s time to go. We’re going to the SEC. Collectively pushing that game behind us and growing together as a team has been huge.”

Arnold’s Alamo Bowl reminded him a little of his freshman year in high school, at Denton Guyer, which reached the Texas Class 6A Division II championship game in 2020. Starting quarterback Eli Stowers suffered a knee injury on Guyer’s seventh snap from scrimmage. Arnold was thrust onto the huge stage, and his Wildcats were swamped 24-0 by Austin Westlake.

“Wasn’t ready,” Arnold said. “I was ready for this game (Alamo Bowl). I didn’t play good at all, but that freshman year, from then, I just kind of learned how to battle adversity. Now looking at it, just kind of put it behind me and using it to learn from my mistakes and push myself going forward.”

Brent Venables showed the ultimate faith in Arnold, basically sticking with a preseason plan in which Gabriel would move on after the 2023 season, either to the pros or the transfer portal, allowing OU’s Arnold era to arrive in 2024. Seems dubious now. Gabriel was the all-Big 12 quarterback in ‘23, and ESPN recently ranked Gabriel as the nation’s second-best quarterback.

Gabriel would look awfully good on this squad, but what’s done is done. This is Arnold’s team. And Venables was not effervescent in his praise of Arnold. At his pre-spring press conference, Venables was mostly matter of fact about Arnold.

“The growth has to happen everywhere,” Venables said. “Small sample size from where he was a year ago. Some good, some not so good. Having good self-awareness, taking ownership and all the things I need to get better at. Getting comfortable, leading, decision-making, timing aspect of it. The mechanics, footwork, eyes, the trust in the guys around him, all those kinds of things. He’ll have to get better at all those things.

“There’s no one particular area that he needs to improve over the other. But he’ll be the first one to tell you he’s going to go right down that checklist. You feel really good about the type of leader, type of athlete and type of quarterback he’s capable of being.”

Arnold said the Alamo Bowl taught him to not hold the ball too long. Be quicker with those decisions. And Arnold knows that in San Antonio, he was a replacement. Not the leader.

That changes in 2024.

Arnold said being more vocal is a priority for him this spring and off-season.

“Speaking out to these guys and kind of showing that I am gonna be their quarterback, I am gonna be their guy, they’ve gotta trust on me and lean on me this spring,” Arnold said.

Establishing that voice and connecting with players is as important as getting acclimated to new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell. It’s not always comfortable, especially for a young player, but it must be done. 

“You just have to do it,” Arnold said. “I mean, I guess I could just sit in my mirror and practice what I’m gonna say, but it’s just not natural. I’d rather be from the heart and want these guys to trust me and ride behind me.”

Arnold’s potential hasn’t subsided, just because of a rough night in the Alamodome.

The longer Venables talked, the more his support for Arnold grew. Venables described Arnold as a bright guy with great instincts and skill.

“Becoming a great college quarterback is what’s in front of him right now,” Venables said. “At the end of the day, (the) real judgment is on the type of teammate and leader and worker he’s been. He’s been fantastic in those areas since he’s been here.”

And part of that leadership was taking ownership of a bad night in San Antonio.

“It’s football, man,” said Farooq. “We all have stakes in this game. It builds character. BV (Venables) speaks on it all the time. Your next play after your mistake, defines you as a person. Just us being able to let the past be the past and moving forward.”

Arnold seems to be moving forward. Deleting social media. Admitting his mistakes. Building off the lessons learned in a long-gone high school championship game and a bowl game deep in the heart of Texas, when he quarterbacked the Sooners but they weren’t his team. That changes in 2024, when the Sooners most definitely are Arnold’s team.

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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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