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OU football: Dillon Gabriel in, Caleb Williams out? Projecting Sooners’ 2022 roster under new coach Brent Venables

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Brent Venables

Head coach Brent Venables in attendance during the Valero Alamo Bowl against No. 14 Oregon at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 29.

When Bob Stoops stood on the Alamodome stage and passed his visor to Brent Venables, a new era of OU football was christened.

The Sooners’ 2021 season ended on a high note on Dec. 29, as OU clobbered Oregon 47-32 in the Valero Alamo Bowl, providing some reprieve from the tumultuous month beforehand. In the lead up to Oklahoma’s postseason competition, coach Lincoln Riley surprisingly bolted for Southern California, Stoops returned from retirement to steady the program and Venables was hired as the Sooners’ next coach.

Following an 11-2 season that underwhelmed in the face of national championship expectations, OU has a chance to return to prominence under Venables, its former defensive coordinator from 1999-2011 who spent the last 10 years coaching Clemson’s overpowering defense.

In wake of Riley’s departure, the Sooners lost five commitments in their 2022 recruiting class, and seven players entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. Thus far, Venables has supplemented that with five freshman additions and three transfer commitments of his own. However, OU is also losing 10 players to the 2022 NFL Draft. 

Indeed, OU’s roster has already undergone massive offensive change and could see more in the near future. Here’s a look at the Sooners’ projected 2022 roster, as of now:

Editor’s Note: Each player’s class is determined by presumed 2022 designation.

Offense

Quarterback

Preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler had already transferred to South Carolina, but the Sooners were dealt another blow at quarterback on Monday when sophomore phenom Caleb Williams, who supplanted Rattler at midseason, entered the portal. 

After saving OU in a comeback victory over Texas on Oct. 9, Williams finished his freshman season with 1,912 passing yards and 21 touchdowns while becoming a charismatic fan favorite. The emerging star nicknamed “Superman” said in his portal announcement that a return to Oklahoma isn’t off the table, but should Williams depart, the Sooners have already acquired an insurance policy. 

Enter left-hander Dillon Gabriel, who played for new OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby at Central Florida in 2019 and committed to the Sooners on Monday evening. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior amassed 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns in three seasons with the Knights, and had previously committed his transfer to UCLA before Lebby pried him away from the Bruins.

Gabriel would presumably become Oklahoma’s starter if Williams leaves, though his arrival doesn’t guarantee Williams won’t return. After all, Williams was confident enough to tell Riley he’d be willing to walk on and earn his spot during the time fellow five-star prospect Brock Vandagriff was committed to OU. Vandagriff ended up at Georgia and Williams received a scholarship with the Sooners, eventually beating out an incumbent starter in Rattler.

Whether Williams or Gabriel is OU’s starter next season, the Sooners’ are likely to use in-house options as backups. Oklahoma will gain four-star recruit Nick Evers, the No. 10 quarterback nationally for 2022, who will enroll early this spring but is probably a few years away from being ready to start. Other reserve options include walk-ons Ralph Rucker and Ben Harris and former Penn State transfer Micah Bowens.

Running back

In 2022, Oklahoma will be without one of its most productive rushers ever in Kennedy Brooks. He declared for the 2022 NFL Draft on Dec. 30 after finishing his college career ranked ninth on the Sooners’ all-time rushing list. 

Without Brooks, OU’s leading rusher with 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, the Sooners will likely lean heavily on senior running back Eric Gray, who finished third on the team in rushing yards with 412. However, in Oklahoma’s 47-32 win over Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, the former Tennessee transfer garnered double-digit touches for the first time since its 16-13 win over West Virginia back in September.

In the 2022 recruiting cycle, Oklahoma added a pair of highly-touted running backs in Jovontae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk. Barnes, a Las Vegas native, was rated as a four-star recruit and No. 10 running back in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite. Sawchuk, a Littleton, Colorado native, was also a four-star recruit, but was considered the No. 5 running back nationally.

Redshirt junior Marcus Major is the other contributor the Sooners will likely have in their running back room. Major, who recorded just 15 carries for 83 yards last season, missed OU’s first five games due to being ruled academically ineligible. However, the former four-star recruit from Oklahoma City has shown flashes, like when he ran for 110 yards and a touchdown against Florida in the 2020 Cotton Bowl.

After rolling with only three scholarship running backs for the majority of the 2021 season, the Sooners will add some needed, although inexperienced, depth to their room next season.

Wide receiver

Following Riley’s departure, the Sooners’ receiving room saw Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease, both former five-star recruits, enter the NCAA Transfer Portal. However, only Haselwood left, as he transferred to Arkansas, while Wease exited and returned to OU after Venables and Lebby were hired. 

Joining Wease, who missed virtually all of 2021 due to a lower leg injury, is potentially a deep stable of returning receivers. Among those likely to return is Oklahoma’s leading receiver in 2021, junior Marvin Mims, who garnered 705 yards. The Sooners, as of now, also return their fourth-leading receiver for next season in sophomore Mario Williams, who garnered 380 yards.

Senior Arkansas transfer Mike Woods, who had the opportunity to return next season due to COVID-19, declared for the draft, likely leaving him and Haselwood as Oklahoma’s lone departures. 

In the 2022 recruiting cycle, Oklahoma added a pair of four-star receivers in Jayden Gibson and Nick Anderson. Gibson, a 6-foot-5 recruit from Winter Garden, Florida, was considered the No. 149 player and No. 25 receiver in the nation. Anderson, the younger brother of former Sooners standout running back Rodney Anderson, was ranked the No. 239 overall player and No. 40 receiver in the class. Anderson is over 6-foot-3 and hails from Katy, Texas. 

Among younger key returners are sophomore Jalil Farooq and likely redshirt freshman Cody Jackson. Farooq recorded just four catches for 69 yards as a freshman, but 64 of those yards came in the bowl win over the Ducks. Jackson, who missed 10 games before suiting up against Oregon due to undisclosed reasons, caught five passes for 45 yards in two games. 

Farooq and Jackson, both former four-star recruits, could play pivotal roles next season barring opportunity. Among other contributing returners are redshirt senior Drake Stoops and juniors Brian Darby and Trevon West, who combined for 27 catches, 338 yards and four touchdowns in 2021.

The Sooners hope to return the majority of their wide receiver production, despite Caleb Williams’ status being in question for 2022. 

Tight end/H-back

With Austin Stogner joining Rattler and former OU tight ends coach Shane Beamer at South Carolina and Jeremiah Hall headed to the NFL, the Sooners have plenty of holes to fill here. It’d help if Brayden Willis, who produced 177 yards and two touchdowns on 15 catches last season, exercised his COVID-19 waiver to return for a fifth year.

Oklahoma already added former Missouri tight end Daniel Parker Jr. via the portal, thanks to coach Joe Jon Finley’s previous connection with the Tigers. The fifth-year senior was named to the All-SEC freshman team under Finley in 2019, but is primarily known for his blocking skills. The converted defensive end’s career stats amount to 337 yards and four touchdowns.

However, OU did add two talented freshmen in 6-foot-5, 222-pound four-star recruit Kaden Helms and 6-foot-5, 240-pound three-star prospect Jason Llewellyn on national signing day. Helms, a Bellevue, Nebraska native, is considered the No. 15 tight end nationally and Llewellyn is the No. 20 tight end in the country for 2022.

Offensive line

Three-year starters Tyrese Robinson and Marquis Hayes both declared for the NFL Draft, leaving holes at right tackle and left guard, respectively. The Sooners may have already plugged one of those by adding Cal transfer McKade Mettauer, a three-year starter at right guard and second team All-Pac 12 selection by Pro Football Focus.

Junior Andrew Raym should return to man the center duties after starting seven games at the position last season. Robert Congel is among the seniors who could return with a COVID-19 waiver, providing depth at the position. Raym and Congel battled back and forth at the spot throughout the season but if Raym ever fully takes hold there, Congel could also provide guard depth. 

Perhaps Chris Murray returns for a fifth season to hold down the starting right guard spot with Mettauer likely sliding in at left guard. Redshirt senior Brey Walker returned from the portal to provide depth and Ian McIver could do so also if he decided to return for a sixth year. Anton Harrison figures to reassume the starting spot at left tackle, while right tackle could be filled by senior Wanya Morris or promising sophomore Savion Byrd.

Defense

Interior defensive line

Despite the Sooners losing nose guard Perrion Winfrey to the draft, they likely retain redshirt junior defensive lineman Jalen Redmond, who has proved a force when on the field.

Replacing Winfrey, who accumulated 5.5 sacks, forced a fumble and recorded highlight-reel hits on the quarterback in 2021, could be done more easily if Redmond, who had 3.5 sacks despite missing five games, can stay healthy.

Although OU loses Winfrey, it likely retains the majority of its production in the interior, returning senior Isaiah Coe, redshirt junior Kori Roberson, senior Josh Ellison, redshirt senior Jordan Kelley and sophomore Kelvin Gilliam. The five rotational interior linemen combined for 2.5 sacks last season and will compete for playing time alongside Redmond.

Oklahoma also added Cedric Roberts and Alton Tarber, both three-star recruits, who signed with the 2022 recruiting class.

Outside linebackers and defensive ends

Replacing outside linebacker Nik Bonitto and defensive end Isaiah Thomas will be no easy feat after the duo combined for 14 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss before declaring for the NFL draft.

Fortunately, the Sooners have a pair at each position that appears ready to step up. Junior Reggie Grimes and senior Marcus Stripling started at defensive end and outside linebacker, respectively, in the Alamo Bowl, collecting 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss and showing they’re ready for more responsibility.

Sophomore Ethan Downs played in every game last season, garnering valuable experience and preparing him to back up Grimes nicely. Junior Brynden Walker and sophomore Clayton Smith both saw limited action in 2021 but should be poised for greater opportunity as Stripling’s backups.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge didn’t play last season and is still a work in progress after primarily playing basketball in high school, but could improve with instruction from new position coach Miguel Chavis.

Middle linebackers

Although standout weakside linebacker Brian Asamoah — who tied for the team lead with 80 tackles despite opting out of the bowl game — declared for the NFL draft, the Sooners should still return an experienced group.

Senior David Ugwoegbu, junior Shane Whitter and sophomore Danny Stutsman, along with redshirt senior DaShaun White, who has yet to announce if he will exercise his extra year of eligibility from COVID-19, all potentially return. That group combined for 174 tackles last season, with Ugwoegbu and White garnering three and 11 starts, respectively.

The Sooners also signed four-star recruits Kobie McKinzie and Kip Lewis, who could play large roles in year one if given the opportunity. McKinzie, a Lubbock native, was rated the No. 13 linebacker in the country, whereas Lewis, a Carthage, Texas native, was considered No. 26 at the position.

Cornerbacks

Inside the cornerbacks room appears to be where the Sooners have the least roster attrition thus far, although they have yet to name a coach for the position. Redshirt junior Woodi Washington made two interceptions in 2021 despite missing much of the season to injury and has a chance to lead the group in 2022.

Senior Jaden Davis and junior D.J. Graham should return in prominent roles, as will junior Key Lawrence, provided he isn’t moved to safety for additional depth there. Graham’s highlight reel one-handed interception against Nebraska cracked SportCenter’s Top 10 for the 2021 season and Lawrence notched a team-high three forced fumbles.

Sophomores Latrell McCutchin and Damond Harmon and junior Joshua Eaton are among the players who could crack the two-deep roster as reserves next season. The Sooners are also adding four-star recruit Jayden Rowe, the No. 9 player in Oklahoma and the No. 39 cornerback nationally, who could push for playing time immediately.

The final piece of the puzzle is Gentry Williams, the No. 1 player in Oklahoma and No. 10 cornerback nationally who is still committed to the Sooners but did not put pen to paper on national signing day. His arrival would take OU’s corner depth to another level, but a change in his loyalties might be a rough setback.

Safeties

Perhaps the biggest question mark on Venables’ defense in year one will be finding suitable safeties.

Oklahoma has to replace Pat Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell, who were both three-year starters and played virtually every snap in the past 38 games. Fields, who’s off to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford, and Turner-Yell, who declared for the draft, leave behind 80, and 53 tackles, respectively, which ranked No. 1 and No. 4 on the team.

The Sooners possess one obvious choice to replace the duo’s production in Lawrence. The Tennessee transfer racked up 47 tackles and a sack in his first season in Norman, even making a few starts at cornerback in the meantime.

Aside from Lawrence, sophomore Billy Bowman or redshirt senior Justin Broiles would likely play at the other safety spots, although Broiles has yet to announce if he will exercise his extra year of eligibility. Bowman and Broiles split time at nickelback last season, although Broiles has experience at safety in the past.

Other options could be Harmon and fellow sophomore Jordan Mukes, along with redshirt junior Jeremiah Criddell, who was the 2021 preseason favorite to start at nickelback, but missed all but three games due to undisclosed reasons. 2022 four-star signee Robert Spears-Jennings from nearby Broken Arrow High in Tulsa could earn a role as well.

Special Teams

Kicker

Oklahoma must replace Gabe Brkic, arguably one of its best kickers in recent memory, in 2022. Brkic, who made 20-of-26 field goals last season, with a nation-high-tying five makes from over 50 yards, declared for the NFL draft, leaving redshirt sophomore Zach Schmit, redshirt junior Josh Plaster and incoming freshman Gavin Marshall to contend for the position.

Schmit, who’s the presumed frontrunner as he served as Brkic’s backup in 2021, made his lone field-goal attempt and converted all four of his PAT’s last season, whereas Plaster, an Arizona State transfer, did not appear.

Marshall, who’s a preferred walk-on in the Sooners’ 2022 recruiting class, picked OU over the likes of Arizona State, Florida State, Air Force and Army. Marshall possesses a five-star rating while being considered the No. 15 kicker in the country, according to Kohl’s Professional Camps.

Punter

Michael Turk, the man who calls himself “Hangtime,” is hanging around for a sixth season, and that’s a welcome sight for OU. The Arizona State transfer was an All-Big 12 first team selection in 2021 and averaged 51.3 yards per punt. Should injury befall Turk, OU would have Reeves Mundschau — a previous two-year starter — waiting in the wings, should he choose to return for a sixth season.

Kick and punt returners

Mims, Gray and Major were listed as the Sooners’ special teams options at season’s end, but with each potentially taking on an increased role in the offense, perhaps other players will be used in this spot to lessen the load on OU’s veterans. Some combination of West, Sawchuk, Barnes and Farooq could make some sense here, although for now, that’s just spitballing.

Sports editor

Mason Young is The Daily's sports editor and covers OU football. He was previously assistant sports editor and has covered OU women's gym, wrestling and former Sooners in the NFL. Email Mason at masyoung@ou.edu and follow him on Twitter @Mason_Young_0

Assistant sports editor

Austin Curtright is a journalism junior and The Daily's assistant sports editor. He covers OU football and has previously covered OU men's basketball, softball and soccer.

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