OU’s Jackson Arnold plays have a name, but it’s a secret

OU’s Jackson Arnold plays have a name, but it’s a secret

Eli Lederman: The package itself, the one that has the Sooners’ quarterback of the future using his feet, appears here to stay. That’s a win for OU’s present and future.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 14, 2023, 11:00am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 14, 2023, 11:00am CDT

NORMAN — There’s a mystery inside Oklahoma’s football facility.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby says there is no name for the short-yardage package the Sooners broke out with freshman Jackson Arnold under center in Week 2. Likewise for Brent Venables.

“Sub … just a sub package,” the OU coach said Saturday after OU’s 28-11 win over SMU.

Starter Dillon Gabriel offers something of a contradiction, even if its only a smidge more revealing.

“We do have a nickname for it,” the fifth-year quarterback said. “I don’t know if I can say it. But we do got a nickname for it.”

“He’s a smart man,” Gabriel said after learning of Venables’ veiled response. 

The name— at least among the greater public — is being kept secret. Arnold’s involvement resembles that of the Belldozer and the short-yardage success Blake Bell found as a power runner with the Sooners in 2011 and 2012, even if a catchy name hasn’t arrived yet.

The package itself though, the one that has the Sooners’ quarterback of the future using his feet, is out in the open and appears here to stay. 

That fact holds bearing on Arnold’s place in  the OU offense this fall as Gabriel’s backup Gabriel. It also offers insight into the Sooners’ plan to prepare the five-star passer for the moment he finally takes over at the position full time, as early as next season if not sooner.

“You don’t want the first time they’re in a real game to be when you don’t have any other real options,” Venables said. “So we’ve got to do a good job of managing that. Collectively, all of us have a vision for what that’s going to look like at the appropriate time.”

So how did the Arnold-led, short-yardage package look in Week 2?

He replaced Gabriel to start OU’s second offensive series, after Peyton Bowen’s blocked punt set up the Sooners at the SMU 40 yard line. 

Arnold ran for two yards on first down, lined up wide on Tawee Walker’s nine-yard run on second down and then returned to the sideline. Gabriel’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Andrel Anthony opened the scoring one play later. 

His second-half involvement came exclusively in third and fourth-and-short situations. 

On the Sooners’ first drive of the third quarter, he picked up a yard on third-and-3, then stayed on the field to hand the ball off to Walker for a first down.

Arnold converted on fourth down with an eight-yard carry on the next series, then got stopped short later in the drive on fourth-and-1 in the SMU red zone.

He finished his second college outing with four carries for 11 yards. Through two games, Arnold averages 5.6 yards on nine carries. 

“I thought he did a really nice job of playing tough and playing physical,” Lebby said. “Obviously we want to convert on the fourth-and-one. That’s a situation where we had opportunities to get it on second and third down and didn’t. He gets put back in that situation. 

“Mentioned this after the game but that’s just invaluable experience for him. Just proud of his toughness and his mindset right now.”

While OU coaches stay quiet on the title of the short-yardage sub package and mum on how often they plan to use Arnold’s legs like they did in Week 2, the signs are there.

Venables confirmed this week that OU has no plans to redshirt Arnold. He’ll remain available as a regular option in the short-yardage run game.

That’s welcome news to the young passer.

Growing up an admirer of Georgia quarterbacks such Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray, Arnold fell in love with running the ball while playing for the North Gwinnett Bulldogs, his youth team in Suwanee, Georgia. That passion followed him when the family relocated to Denton, Texas, when Arnold was 10. 

“When I moved out to Texas I actually became a running back for a little while,” he said. “Running the ball is like second nature to me.”

Arnold continuing in a role in the run game would take care of two important factors for the Sooners this fall. 

In the 6-foot-1, 214-pound quarterback, OU has size and a player it’s seemingly comfortable throwing into short-yardage situations. And Arnold’s ability in those moments provides the Sooners protection for Gabriel, the veteran who remains key to the Sooners’ conference title aspirations.

That’s for the here and now. How about the future? The vision OU has for Arnold’s long-term development is surely part of all this, too.

“We have to continue to bring him along,” Venables said Tuesday. “What we’re doing with him — I don’t think that’s necessarily indicative of what he can’t do. We’ll continue to give him some opportunity when it’s the right time. We’re trying to get him experience, confidence, comfort, all those things through getting him on the field and meaningful playing time.”

Gabriel’s claim to the starting role in 2023 whittles Arnold’s overall chances for the most valuable kinds of exposure. In the short-yardage situations OU intends to use him in, he’ll find himself in pressure moments like the one Arnold came up short on in the red zone against SMU.

That could help the Sooners this fall. It’ll certainly benefit Arnold and OU plans for him in the future.

 

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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