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Why Jeff Lebby is 'Proud' of Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel's 'Growth' Throughout Spring Practice

Oklahoma's offensive coordinator had a clear vision for the improvement Dillon Gabriel could make this spring, and Jeff Lebby was pleased with the strides Gabriel took.

NORMAN — Dillon Gabriel is more comfortable heading into his second year at Oklahoma.

After a year of transition and teaching the offense a new system, the Sooner quarterback is ready to take another step forward this fall.

Throughout spring practice he took on the challenge of continuing to improve his mechanics, but the OU offense also honed in improving in certain situations.

Third and fourth downs specifically are areas the offense targeted.

Last year, the Sooners were fine on third down, converting 40.5 percent of third downs which was good for 49th out of 131 in the FBS.

Fourth downs, however, were a point of frustration.

OU’s conversion percentage dropped all the way to 37.9 percent on the decisive down, which ranked No. 113 nationally.

Gabriel said he saw growth from his unit in the spring game.

“I think we (went) 4-for-8 (on third downs) and then fourth downs, 3-for-5,” Gabriel said after the game. “… But that’s something we still want to get better at, but this spring overall I think we’ve done a great job of finding ways to convert. And also, at the end of the day it’s making the plays.

“We always talk about numbers and statistically this and that, but the truth is sometimes you’ve gotta go out there and just make the damn play. Kind of think with that approach and have an emphasis with situational football has helped us.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby looked at the day as a whole, where there were mixed reviews.

Injuries along the offensive line meant the Sooners had to field a patchwork second unit, which gave true freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold little time to work in the first half.

“We were up and down,” Lebby said. “The hardest thing is that when the two group was out there, so many negatives and so many blundered plays that you're in really bad third-down situations. That makes it really hard.

“And then having a couple of really good plays situationally to where we were able to convert and stay on the field. We had the fourth-down drop that had a chance to be a touchdown if it stays up, but it didn't. We're going to continue to strain in every one of those areas and improve as we get going through the summer and into fall camp.”

The added depth behind Gabriel could allow him to show off his wheels more this season, as he did in the Cheez-It Bowl against Florida State.

He rushed for a career-high 315 yards last season at Oklahoma, and allowing him to move the pocket is something the Sooners could be more willing to do in 2023.

“That will certainly be in the play,” head coach Brent Venables said after the spring game. “We'll still continue to evaluate, but we do feel better about our quarterback situation obviously. And Dillon has shown last year several times the ability to escape pressure and make plays and improvise.

“But designed quarterback run will be something that we'll carry into every game, I would imagine."

More importantly, Lebby and Gabriel worked this spring to better utilize Gabriel’s athleticism in the pocket.

“Through 15 practices, we wanted to clean a couple of things up fundamentally like slowing him down in the pocket,” said Lebby, “being a little better protectionally and being able to get us in the right protections in certain situations. He's taken unbelievable ownership in that, which has been great to see.”

Ultimately, Lebby wanted Gabriel to be more comfortable in the pocket and have faith that the offensive line in front of him can provide enough protection to allow plays to develop.

“Trusting that pocket, but also in my drop not being too fast,” Gabriel said. “And I think as we've worked on it, and that being a point of emphasis has really helped me in general going through progressions and seeing the different coverages for those plays.

“But, like I said, it starts there, and it starts with me, and I think with that approach it really helped me.”

The work will continue for Gabriel throughout the summer and into fall camp, but Lebby is pleased with the progress and development that occurred through spring practice.

“There's been great growth on the grass with him, being able to take the meeting room to the field,” Lebby said. “I’m proud of his growth. We had a very narrow vision of what it needed to look like through 15 practices. Very pointed, very direct.

“He was able to accomplish a lot of what we wanted to through 15 practices.”

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