NORMAN — Jackson Arnold was anointed before he even stepped onto campus.
The coveted quarterback signed with Oklahoma on the morning of Dec. 21, 2022. Later that day, then-Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby spoke about Arnold with conviction, making a comfortable prediction about the future in the perpetually uncertain world of major college football.
“At some point, he’s going to be the face of Oklahoma,” Lebby said of OU’s five-star prospect.
As of Monday morning, Dillon Gabriel is off to the transfer portal. Less than 12 months after Lebby stood behind that lectern, the path is clear for the Sooners’ quarterback of the future to get his first opportunity in the starting job in 2024.
Twenty-four days before the Alamo Bowl, the Jackson Arnold era in Norman is officially here.
“He knows what to do, he’s always prepared, always knows the game plan,” wide receiver Drake Stoops said of Arnold last month. “That’s what’s important — him always being ready for his moment.”
Monday’s news clears up the future of the Sooners’ quarterback room in both the near and long term.
Let’s start with Gabriel’s departure. Put simply, the former UCF quarterback became the single most important player in Brent Venables’ two seasons in charge of the program. His exit now paves the way for the Sooners to move toward their future.
“(He brought) stability. Consistency. Leadership,” Venables said of Gabriel last month. “And he’s made everyone around him better.”
With 42 total touchdowns, a climb up the NCAA’s career leaderboard in multiple passing categories and a heroic effort in the Oct. 7 win over Texas, Gabriel just capped the most productive season of his college career. However, whether it was a move to the portal or the pros, his return to Norman for 2024 always seemed unlikely.
Gabriel now hits the portal with one season of eligibility remaining as one of the most experienced and talented passers available in the lucrative transfer quarterback market. Oregon, USC and Lebby’s Mississippi State are among the programs already rumored to be interested in his services next fall, when Gabriel could close in on several NCAA passing records.
The impact of Gabriel’s exit matters to the Sooners’ future. The timing of it does, too.
With Gabriel in the portal, Arnold will take first-team reps over the Sooners’ 15 bowl game practices. He’s also on track to make his first career start against No. 14 Arizona in the Dec. 28 Alamo Bowl. That’s a month’s head start for the freshman quarterback and new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.
But Monday’s news is about much more than OU’s 2023 bowl game. When the Sooners jump to the SEC in 2024, they’ll open the next chapter in program history with a new era unfolding at the quarterback position.
“We know that Dillon won’t be here next year, so we’ve got to prepare for that day as well,” Venables said in late August prior to 2023 season opener . “Like all decisions, you’ve got to have a plan for that. And we do.”
The stage, undoubtedly, is set for Arnold to take over in the starting role in his second season, a progression that’s been in the works since the eighth-ranked prospect in the 2023 class arrived at OU in January.
Alongside upperclassmen Davis Beville and General Booty, Arnold is the only starting-caliber quarterback on the Sooners’ roster. Four-star passer Michael Hawkins, who will join that group once the early signing period opens later this month, doesn’t change that equation.
One key offseason question lies with whether the Sooners will or can lure another passer to Norman to take on the backup role. Venables only needs to look back to October 2022 and OU’s 49-0 loss to Texas to remember what life is like without adequate quarterback depth.
As for Arnold, he’ll tackle the Sooners’ first run through the SEC — a slate that includes Alabama, LSU and Tennessee — after spending a year behind Gabriel and appearing in five games in his freshman season.
Arnold earned the backup job in 2023 and appeared in four of OU’s initial five games this fall.
He went a perfect 11-for-11 for 114 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas State on Sept. 2. Two weeks later, Arnold highlighted his relief work at Tulsa with a 50-yard touchdown strike to Nic Anderson. Used often in short-yardage run situations in September, he gained 78 yards on 20 carries during the regular season.
That early-season action was supposed to be it for Arnold in 2023 as the Sooners planned to maintain his redshirt into the final month of the regular season. That changed in OU’s Nov. 18 trip to BYU, when Arnold stepped in for the injured Gabriel and guided the Sooners to a 31-24 road victory in the most significant action of his college career.
Arnold’s performance that afternoon, headlined by his game-sealing third-down connection with Jalil Farooq, offered the clearest window yet into the quarterback OU is set to turn to in 2024.
“He’s put the work in and the moment wasn’t too big for him,” Venables said afterward. “The players around him, they knew that too.”
That’s the quarterback OU will turn for the potentially defining seasons of Venables’ tenure and the early years the Sooners’ run in their new conference home.
Another window into Arnold at OU will arrive later this month at the Alamo Bowl. His debut season under center in 2024 will hinge on roster turnover, how the Sooners cope with an SEC schedule and how the talented young quarterback settles into the starting job.
As of Monday morning, the picture for OU next fall is no longer murky. Indeed, the Sooners’ quarterbacking future is finally here.