It feels good to be able to spend time analyzing actual game action against other opponents. It felt as if we’d never make it, but we did, and it’s glorious.
Oklahoma laced up the cleats and strapped on the pads on Saturday to take on the UTEP Miners. The Miners, led by Dana Dimel, came into the game 0-1 after losing in week zero to North Texas.
On the other side, a historic day unfolded for Brent Venables.
He returned to Oklahoma and coached in his first game since leaving Norman to be Clemson’s defensive coordinator over a decade ago. This time was different. He became the 18th Oklahoma head coach to win his head coaching debut as the Sooners took down UTEP 45-13.
Offensively, Oklahoma entered the season replacing their starting quarterbacks, running back, starting left guard, a Swiss army knife in Jeremiah Hall, and a couple of notable pass catchers who transferred or went to the NFL. Defensively, they lost six starters. Five went to the NFL, and the other, safety Pat Fields, transferred to Stanford.
Saturday was step one in establishing new stars for the Oklahoma program and seeing guys in new positions taking steps forward in the right direction. Some names stood out in particular as we select our three stars for the first time this season.
1. Reggie Grimes, DE
Oklahoma defensive lineman Reggie Grimes (14) celebrates after sacking UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison, bottom, in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Defensively, the biggest question all offseason was who would step forward and become a dependable pass rusher after Nik Bonitto and Isaiah Thomas’ departure to the NFL. The answer isn’t solidified, but if the answer choices were multiple choice, you’d probably be circling Reggie Grimes’ name after his performance against UTEP.
Grimes flashed big time, and while it wasn’t a Power Five opponent, standing out and dominating lesser competitors is what great players do.
At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Grimes is a load for tackles to handle. He has excellent play strength and good hand movement, allowing him to disengage from blockers. His 2.5 sacks against UTEP led the team and gave his coaches something to think about as they prepare for Kent State.
For Grimes, this could be the start of his ascension. He sat behind Thomas and Bonitto and didn’t fit Grinch’s defensive scheme as seamlessly as he does in Venables’ system.
Brent Venables’ system is at its best when the front four can harass the quarterback without having to send extra rushers on the blitz. Grimes stepping forward as a defensive game changer could alter the trajectory of what this defense can be in year one if he becomes a star.
2. Dillon Gabriel, QB
Sep 3, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8) throws during the first half against the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Dillon Gabriel’s first game as Oklahoma’s QB1 went as smoothly as you could imagine. No turnovers but a few missed throws that looked more like timing issues than anything else.
Gabriel posted a stat line of 15 for 23 for 233 yards passing, two touchdown passes (both to senior tight end Brayden Willis), and ran for a score for the first touchdown of the game.
It was undeniable very early that Gabriel had played in this offensive system before.
He looked decisive and poised as he ripped passes across the field. Early in the first, he threw a dime to Marvin Mims, which got the Sooners humming. Gabriel also showed off an element of his game that didn’t garner attention at UCF, which was using his feet to make plays.
Putting on tape that Gabriel can pull the ball on the read-option play and find succes successful will help keep future opponents off balance. It gives them more to think about and, in turn, offers Oklahoma opportunities to exploit defenses elsewhere.
3. Eric Gray, RB
Sept. 3, 2022; Norman; Oklahoma Sooners running back Eric Gray (0) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Gray received praise all summer for his effort, his leadership, and how well he ran the ball. In Lebby’s offense that loves to run the ball, Gray’s role grows even more than he might’ve expected.
He’s got the endorsement of his offensive coordinator, and on Saturday, he provided a glimpse as to why.
The former transfer from Tennessee carried the rock 16 times for a game-high 102 yards (6.4 yards per carry). It was his first 100-yard rushing game at Oklahoma. He had two catches for 33 yards to pair with that as well.
Gray gives the Sooners a dynamic back that doesn’t have to leave the field. That benefits them greatly as they want to use personnel groupings in multiple ways so they can play with tempo to wear teams out.
He showed burst, a willingness to get dirty yards, and pass block. It was a solid all-around performance for a guy this offense will lean on for a lot.
Honorable mention: Danny Stutsman,LB
Oklahoma’s Danny Stutsman (28) watches UTEP’s Gavin Hardison (2) during a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13. BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK
A monster of a man, Danny Stutsman roams the weak side of the Sooners’ defense as their WILL linebacker. He came out on top after battling it out with other talented linebackers that made up Oklahoma’s LB room and showed glimpses that things would be fine there.
Stutsman played under control but full of the passion and energy we’ve expected of him. He looked comfortable in space and fitting into gaps playing the run as well.
Stutsman had a day out there next to David Ugwoegbu and finished with a career-high nine tackles (six solo), which tied for the team-high yesterday. He had the first two pass breakups of his career and a QB hurry. He looked violent and on a mission, leaving his imprint on the game. Many have talked about Stutsman’s ceiling. It’s pretty high and yesterday felt like a perfect step in the right direction.
Honorable mention: Zach Schmit, K
Oklahoma’s Zach Schmit during the University of Oklahoma’s annual spring football game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 23, 2022. Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
This selection may be a bit unconventional, but it’s well deserved and likely an oversight by many. Honorable mention must go to that of new Oklahoma kicker Zach Schmit who entered the season trying to replace one of the school’s best kickers in Gabe Brkic.
While he didn’t have any 40-yard attempts, he converted his one attempt from 22 yards out and nailed his extra-point attempts. The fewer kicks from 40 yards, the better since it likely means Oklahoma is scoring touchdowns rather than settling for field goals. However, it looks as though kicking may not be an issue as we advance through the regular season, which is always a great thing not to have to worry about.