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Spring Preview: Oklahoma Has Clarity at QB, But Plenty of Inexperience, Too

This spring is finally Jackson Arnold's time to lead the Sooners, but while this is his first year to start, there's virtually no experience behind him.

However you may have felt about Jeff Lebby as a play caller, there was no debating his talent as a quarterback recruiter.

When Brent Venables hired Lebby in the fallout of Lincoln Riley’s sudden departure, the Sooners’ quarterback room was thin at best. Caleb Williams had one foot in the Alamo Bowl and one foot at USC — and then it was a bunch of walk-ons.

Now, as Lebby has begun his head coaching career at Mississippi State, he should get a salute from Sooner Nation for landing the QB talent he did: Dillon Gabriel for two explosively productive seasons, 5-star recruit Jackson Arnold for the foreseeable future, 4-star Michael Hawkins and 3-star Brendan Zurbrugg in the 2024 class and, coming down the line, 2025 4-star Kevin Sperry.

OU has officially restocked at quarterback thanks to the prodigious physical talents of Arnold, the stud from Denton, TX, who was the Gatorade National Player of the Year and now must replace Gabriel as the Sooners’ starting QB.

As a true freshman in 2023, Arnold passed for 563 yards, completing 64 percent of his throws (44-of-69) with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

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Arnold, an Under Armour All-American and a dual-threat QB at Guyer High School, has an electrifying arm and two explosive legs. He’s a passer first — and might very well be the next great Sooner quarterback — but he’s athletic and dynamic and deceptively strong as a runner, rushing for 116 net yards and a touchdown last season.

New QB coach and offensive coordinator Seth Littrell also likes the moxie he sees in Arnold. Remember last season when he burned his redshirt to fill in for Gabriel in a tight game at BYU and delivered a couple of decisive fourth-quarter, third-down throws? That was his first meaningful action as a college quarterback. Now project that over a career.

Of course, Arnold’s first career start wasn’t good — he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the Sooners’ Alamo Bowl loss to Arizona. He finished with 339 yards, the fourth-most ever by an OU quarterback in a bowl game, and two touchdown passes. So not all bad by any means. But Arnold knows successful OU quarterbacks can’t have four turnovers — ever.

So next Monday begins a big spring for Arnold, one in which he will be expected to learn Littrell’s playbook, his cadence, his tempo and his expectations as the quarterback coach. They’ll learn from each other — Littrell was head coach at North Texas for seven years and spent the 2023 season as Lebby’s offensive analyst — and grow together.

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It’s actually Arnold’s second spring practice at OU. In last year’s Red/White Game, Arnold completed 6-of-14 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown.

He’ll have way more on his shoulders this spring.

A big reason for that is those who are scheduled to back him up.

Hawkins and Zurbrugg are both true freshmen. This spring, they’re supposed to be finishing high school, but instead they’re in Norman, going to class, working out with their teammates, lifting, running, enduring grueling coaching stations, and trying to figure out how a college quarterback should act.

Hawkins, whose father Michael Sr. played defensive back at OU for Venables and Bob Stoops, compiled 4,211 total yards and 55 touchdowns (just three interceptions) as a senior as he led Frisco’s Emerson High School to the Texas 5A semifinals.

Hawkins was an Elite 11 finalist, was named Quarterback MVP at the 2023 Rivals Camp in Dallas, won the Accuracy Challenge Award at the 2023 Under Armour Next All-America Camp in Dallas — and accomplished all that after transferring from Allen, TX.

Zurbrugg passed for 2,322 yards and 26 touchdowns last year and ran for 1,038 yards and 13 TDs. He set the school record with 6,376 total yards and 63 total touchdowns.

How athletic is Zurbrugg? He was a two-time All-Ohio performer in track, winning a regional title and placing at state in the 300-meter hurdles. He can go.

Hawkins chose OU over Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan and others. Zurbrugg picked the Sooners over Syracuse and Northwestern.

Of course, the ultimate fallback plan next fall includes former Texas, Nebraska and Florida Atlantic quarterback Casey Thompson, son of former Sooner Charles Thompson who's always had OU in his heart but only now has decided to transfer to play for the Sooners. He won't participate in much this spring as he's coming off a significant knee injury at FAU, but he should be able to fulfill the backup role when fall practice arrives.  

And if Venables doesn’t like the position’s overall inexperience when spring practice wraps up on April 20, he can always reach back out into the transfer portal to find a more experienced backup behind Arnold. Life in the SEC can be tough on quarterbacks, after all.

After two years of backing up Gabriel and Davis Beville, former junior college transfer General Booty is still hoping to make a dent on the two-deep. He could open the spring in the default position as Arnold’s backup, but then would have to fend off Hawkins and Zurbrugg. Booty has played in one game and taken two snaps.

Give credit to Lebby for stocking the Sooners’ QB room now and in the future, but give credit to the tradition and culture of the program and to Venables as a recruiter for keeping (so far) all of Lebby’s guys after their future position coach took a head coaching job elsewhere in the SEC.