Saturday will bring about the first game of the 2023 college football season for both Oklahoma and Arkansas State. Both rosters feature a bevy of new faces to go along with holdovers from last year’s squads. The new and the old immediately have to combine to produce winning chemistry. They’ve gone through spring practices, summer workouts, and then fall camp. Now it’s time to put the pads on for real! Here are some key players to keep an eye on in Saturday’s season opener.
Oklahoma Quarterback Dillon Gabriel (#8)
It all starts with the quarterback. Dillon Gabriel is the most accomplished quarterback in the Big 12 and the reigning conference Offensive Rookie of the Year. He threw for 3,168 yards in 2022, with 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He also ran for 317 rushing yards, and six more scores. However, he was heavily criticized in his first year wearing the crimson and cream. Some of the criticism was warranted based off of decisions made on the field, and then, to be honest, some of the criticism came from the fact that he wasn’t Caleb Williams.
None of that matters now, as Gabriel prepares for his final collegiate campaign. Last season was a “break in” season after there were a lot of moving parts with coaches and player personnel from the 2021 to 2022 seasons. Now, Gabriel has had ample time to get his head around Jeff Lebby’s offense. He played for Lebby at Central Florida but Power Five football is a different animal. Third and fourth down management has to be better and knowing when to give up on a run by, stepping out of bounds or sliding, could be the key to him remaining healthy for an entire season for the first time since 2020.
Arkansas State Quarterback J.T. Shrout (#5)
A college football journeyman, Shrout began his career at Tennessee before transferring to Colorado. He’s played in a total of 17 games between the two schools and arrives to Jonesboro with 1,714 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions under his belt. Granted, he didn’t have much of a supporting cast at Colorado but he did show a tendency to struggle under pressure, throwing 8 interceptions last season to 7 touchdowns. If Oklahoma can keep the pressure on him then the chances for nabbing some turnovers should be there.
Oklahoma Receiver Jalil Farooq (# 3)
One of the top prospects to replace Marvin Mims, Farooq has the opportunity to flourish this season. He was fourth on the team in 2022 in receiving yards (466) and scored five touchdowns. Now, he looks to headline Oklahoma’s offense as one of the top playmakers in the passing game. Last fall he averaged 12.6 yards per reception. I would expect to see that number go up a bit in 2023, if he ends up being Gabriel’s top option.
Arkansas State Receiver Corey Rucker (#7)
Rucker was a star for the Red Wolves before he transferred to South Carolina for the 2022 season. An injury sidelined him there, limiting him to just two games where he caught one pass for 52 yards. He’s back at Arkansas State now to finish his career and is hoping to pick up where he left off, after having caught 75 passes for 1,269 yards and 14 touchdowns during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. If he’s back to form then he could provide a challenge to Oklahoma’s secondary.
Oklahoma Receiver Andrel Anthony (#5)
If Farooq doesn’t take the spotlight in Oklahoma’s passing attack then it might be because Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony has done so. Built with a similar frame to Farooq, Anthony might have an advantage in the speed department. He was seldom used in two seasons at Michigan, where he caught just 19 total passes, but averaged 16.05 yards per reception and scored four touchdowns. He’s the kind of guy who can be an immediate impact player, assuming he has a full grasp of the offense.
Arkansas State Receiver Courtney Jackson (#9)
Corey Rucker isn’t the only receiver to transfer in to Arkansas State this season. Courtney Jackson brings four years of experience to the Red Wolves’ offense and has the ability to stretch the field. He had double digit averages in his yards per catch the last two seasons, capped by an average of 13.4 yards per catch in 2022. This is the guy that ASU is going to try to get behind the Sooner defense.
Oklahoma Receiver Brenen Thompson (#15)
Speaking of speed, this kid has it! In high school he won the Texas 3A 200-meter title (21.27) as a junior in May 2021, while also earning silver in the 100 (10.40). He only caught one pass at Texas last season but it was a swing pass that went for 32 yards against Oklahoma State. He’s going to be the guy who stretches the field and tries to get hooked up on a mismatch in coverage. Thompson could be Oklahoma’s x-factor in 2023, much in the same way that Marquise Brown was in 2017 & 18. He’s got that type of speed!
Arkansas State Receiver Jeff Foreman (#14)
Forman also has the ability to stretch the field. He rounds out a trio of Arkansas State receivers who are going to challenge Oklahoma’s secondary. In 2022 he averaged 16.4 yards per reception, on 30 catches, which was actually down from 2021 when he averaged 17.9 on 31 receptions. Getting quarterback pressure is going to be crucial for OU on Saturday. The more time Shrout has in the pocket the more opportunity he has to find one of these three guys downfield.
Oklahoma Running Back Gavin Sawchuk (#27)
Sawchuk flashed his potential in the Cheez-It Bowl when he ran for 100 yards, at a pace of 6.7 yards per carry, against Florida State. He’ll be teamed up with Jovantae Barnes in Oklahoma’s backfield but I believe Sawchuk is more of a “home run threat” due to his pass-catching abilities and his speed. Barnes is likely to be RB #1 but Sawchuk is likely to be the one to make the bigger plays.
Arkansas State Offensive Lineman Jalen Cunningham (#51)
The Ole Miss transfer was brought in to help bolster an offensive line that only managed to pave the way for an average of 88 rushing yards per game in 2022, and gave up 38 quarterback sacks. He’ll be lining up at right guard, next to transfer center Jacob Bayer, and will be responsible for helping to hold the middle of the line together against the new, and hopefully improved, defensive front for the Sooners.
Oklahoma Offensive Lineman Walter Rouse (#75)
I think Oklahoma’s offensive line was always going to be strong but adding Rouse at left tackle solidifies the unit as possibly one of the best in the conference. He was a four-year starter at Stanford and last season he played 650 snaps according to PFF and was flagged for just one penalty.
Arkansas State Nose Tackle Micah Bland (#55)
The 6-1/321 big man transferred in from Alabama State after managing 96 tackles over the last two seasons. He’s the biggest guy on the Arkansas State defensive line and will look to get penetration into Oklahoma’s backfield or to open lanes for blitzing linebackers. Neutralizing him is likely to be a focus of OU’s interior offensive linemen.
Oklahoma Linebacker Danny Stutsman (#28)
After leading the Big 12 in total tackles in 2022, with 125, year three could be the best year of Stutsman’s career. He has All-American potential and should be the unquestioned leader of Oklahoma’s defense. The question surrounding him is going to be if he can maintain the same focus and mentality while also guiding a new crop of defenders who arrived through the transfer portal. Stutsman’s on-the-field leadership in 2023 with be equally as important as what he places in his stat-line.
Arkansas State Linebacker Melique Straker (#21)
Straker was second on the team in tackles in 2022, registering 81 takedowns. He also recorded two sacks and forced a fumble. He’s likely to be ASU’s leading tackler on Saturday and be one of the top defensive playmakers for the Red Wolves this season.
Oklahoma Linebacker Dasan McCullough (#1)
After earning Freshman All-American honors in 2022 at Indiana, McCullough brought his talents to Norman as a vital piece of Oklahoma’s defensive rebuild. His freakish athleticism allowed him to record 49 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks. The Sooner depth chart should be released later today and it’ll be interesting to see where McCullough stacks up at the Cheetah position. He could easily be the #1 option there and his potential is literally though the roof.
Arkansas State Safety Trevian Thomas (#9)
Thomas will team up with Eddie Smith to form one of the best safety duos in the Sun Belt Conference. In 2022 he 71 total tackles and returned an interception 27 yards for a score. Look for the Sooners to challenge him with tight end Austin Stogner.
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