Jackson Arnold’s first career start caps a month of growth in Norman

Jackson Arnold’s first career start caps a month of growth in Norman

Forty days after he last appeared off the bench at BYU, the Sooners’ quarterback of the future enters the Alamo Bowl confident and ready, according to teammates.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Dec 28, 2023, 7:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Dec 28, 2023, 7:00am CST

SAN ANTONIO — Ask the Sooners and they’ll tell you all about the rapid maturation of quarterback Jackson Arnold during Oklahoma’s Alamo Bowl prep this month.

Right guard McKade Mettauer caught one of the latest flashes on Christmas Day.

Less than 24 hours after arriving at the bowl site, the Sooners were running scrambling drills on the practice fields at UTSA Monday afternoon. Blitzing on-rushing defenders to flush the quarterback from the pocket, the exercise is designed to force the passer to throw on the run and under pressure. 

It’s the kind of drill that might have flustered Arnold in another moment during his freshman year at OU. But this was one of the final bowl practices at the end of a month of first-team snaps for the Sooners’ new starting quarterback. So, according to Mettauer, Arnold tore through his reps confidently, rolling out and firing one first-down connection after another to veteran pass catchers Drake Stoops and Jalil Farooq. 

That was Arnold running the first team little more than 11 months into his time on campus. To Mettauer, the experienced blocker who will play in his 55th and final college game in San Antonio, it was a small moment that said a lot about Arnold’s recent progression.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, this guy’s getting more mature’” Mettauer said of the freshman quarterback. “Just calm, confident. Jackson doesn’t freak out about anything. He’s been good. I’m excited to see what he can do when we can free him up in the Alamodome.”

On the turf of the Alamodome is where No. 12 OU (10-2) will fully unleash Arnold for the first time. The former five-star prospect is set for his first career start Thursday night (8:20 p.m., ESPN) when the Sooners meet No. 14 Arizona (9-3) to close Brent Venables’ second season in charge.

Long ago anointed OU’s quarterback of the future, Arnold’s full debut will mark his most significant action since taking over the Sooners’ offense after halftime at BYU on Nov. 18. 

Arnold emerged in relief of the injured Dillon Gabriel in Provo and attempted only nine passes in the second half of the 31-24 win. Forty days later, Arnold is closing a month of development fully installed as the Sooners’ QB1 under new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, setting up the season finale with Arizona to deliver the most complete picture yet of the coveted quarterback expected to carry OU into the SEC next fall. 

Venables said on Wednesday that the 2021 Alamo Bowl trip “seems like a decade ago.” In fact, it’s only been 24 months. Two years after Venables’ tenure with the Sooners took flight inside the Alamodome, another beginning will sprout for OU in San Antonio as Arnold takes to the reins. 

“He’s got the instincts that you want him to have; the poise,” Venables said. “Whether it’s the ability to climb in the pocket, patience, trust(ing) guys around him, throws open with great anticipation — (he’s got) all the skills you want a guy to have.”

The recent history for first-time bowl game starters is bleak

In a sense, Arnold’s promotion to the starting job and the bowl season headstart he’s gotten this month is a simple, modern college football story. Of course, Arnold’s turn as the next in line under center in Norman only officially arrived when Dillon Gabriel entered the transfer portal on Dec. 4. 

In another era of the sport — perhaps one in which the portal didn’t exist and bowl games carried the same weight they used to — Arnold might have had to wait until 2024 to take over the offense. Instead, he’ll enter the new year with 15 bowl practices and a postseason start under his belt at the end of a bowl season that’s accelerated his progression.

I think there’s been a ton of growth,” Littrell said of Arnold earlier this week.

“He loves competing,” he added moments later. “He always goes out and plays with that chip on his shoulder. I definitely believe he’s going to be a special player.”

Arnold’s path to his Alamo Bowl start is a contemporary college football tale. However, even in this moment of mass movement throughout the sport, Arnold’s situation is not all that common. 

There were 86 quarterbacks who made starts across 43 bowl games in the 2022 season. Of that group, only six were making their first career start as Arnold will Thursday, headlined by Clemson’s Cade Klubnik, who debuted as starter in the 2022 Citrus Bowl. Across the first 20 bowl games of this postseason, there have been just four more first-time starting passers.

Arnold is set to become only the 11th passer in the past two seasons to make his first start in a bowl game. Should Arnold deliver the debut OU fans are dreaming of, he’ll be bucking the trend set by his recent predecessors in the same spot. 

Of 10 quarterbacks to make first-time bowl game starts in the last two seasons, only one — Klubnik — has eclipsed 180 yards passing. Among those passers, just three have completed more than 60% of their passes in those games. Collectively, the group has averaged 111.7 yards on a 56.6% completion percentage with five total touchdowns, eight interceptions and a shared record of 5-5.

In short, bowl games have not been kind to first-time starters over the last two seasons.

There is important context. Of the six first-timers last bowl season, only five managed to play a single snap in 2023. Among the four first-time starters this month were a pair of veteran backups, a redshirt sophomore at Miami (Ohio) and a converted tight end at Syracuse.

Those quarterbacks were not the program-changers Arnold is expected to become. Within that group, the closest corollary is Klubnik, the former five-star recruit who got his first career start against Tennessee last December and went on to make 12 starts for Clemson this fall.

Here’s what Dabo Swinney said after Klubnik completed 30 of his 54 passes for 320 yards in the Tigers’ 2022 Citrus Bowl defeat: 

“He did a lot of good things, made some big-time throws. You can easily see how talented he is and what a great player he’s going to be. Y’all saw what this kid’s got the ability to do.”

Swinney was sure of Klubnik’s talent this time last year. His former defensive coordinator has  only become more convinced of Arnold this month. On Wednesday, Venables harped on the consistency he’s seen from his freshman quarterback in the lead up to the Alamo Bowl. 

“If he has a bad play, he doesn’t have a bad series. If he had a bad series, he doesn’t have a bad day,” he said. “He’s quickly able to regain his composure and not let a bad moment really affect him. You’ve seen that happen throughout the course of the season, but especially during the last several practices.”

Evaluating a debut

Arnold admitted to some initial nervousness after he stepped in at BYU. The Alamo Bowl, with its day-long wait to the 8:20 p.m. kickoff, has the potential to deliver something similar. 

“I think definitely day-of there will be a lot more nerves than normal,” Arnold said earlier this month.

Nerves are natural. But around the OU camp there’s little doubt that Arnold is ready for his moment. Teammates like Mettauer and Stoops have gushed about Arnold’s ability and his emergence in the role of starting quarterback. Venables’ most recent mention of Arnold’s “great demeanor” came with a comparison to former Sooners Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford.

Littrell said he saw all he needed when Arnold burned his redshirt and secured the win at BYU last month.

“He didn’t blink an eye and went out there,” Littrell said. “That’s what I’m talking about. He’s prepared the right way all year. This isn’t the first time he’s prepared to be the starter in a football game because that’s what he does. And that’s how he’s prepared all year long.” 

Littrell indicated this week that the Sooners will stick with the scheme and terminology of Jeff Lebby’s offense for the bowl. Changes may come in the offseason, but the offense Arnold is set to run against Arizona will be similar to what he operated in as the backup this fall.

For better or worse, this starting debut will be the primary metric by which Arnold is measured from now to the Sooners’ Aug. 31, 2024 season opener with Temple. The game film will be parsed and the box scores pored over as a piece in the discussion as the Sooners venture into the SEC.

That discourse belongs to those outside the program. How does Littrell intend to evaluate Arnold’s first career start? 

“Just him managing the football game,” he said. “He’s got a lot of great players around him and understanding that he doesn’t have to do it all. We’re in this together.”

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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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