Final thoughts on the Oklahoma Sooners 2022 season

The Oklahoma Sooners 2022 season didn’t go the way many observers would have guessed. Finishing with a losing record for the first time since 1998 wasn’t in the cards for many. But it’s where they ended up.

Still, they feel like a team that was, dare I say, (shudders) “close.”

They lost four of their last five games, each coming by a field goal. They were 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That doesn’t mean they were going to be a national title contender or even a Big 12 contender, but they were literally closer to winning eight or nine games, even if they break even in those one-score losses.

There’s a lot of work to do in Norman to improve upon their 2022 season, but there were also some positive things we learned from Brent Venables’ first year with the Oklahoma Sooners.

So here are some final thoughts on the Oklahoma Sooners 2022 season.

Defense needs work

Oct 1, 2022; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; TCU Horned Frogs running back Emari Demercado (3) runs with the ball past Oklahoma Sooners defensive back Key Lawrence (12) during the first half at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma’s defense allowed 30 points per game in 2022. In Big 12 play, the Sooners allowed an average of 36.1 points per game. The Sooners allowed 463 total yards per game, 99th in the country. The pass defense ranked 120th in the nation, and the run defense was 106th in the nation.

There weren’t many positives to take away from the defensive unit as a whole. Though a few foundational pieces began to take shape, this was a defense that, by and large, struggled to stop anyone. They struggled to cover and rush the passer.

In games in which they allowed 30 points or fewer, the Oklahoma Sooners were 5-1. The lone loss was to West Virginia on a day went the defense held the Mountaineers to 23 points in an overtime stunner. The Sooners were just 1-6 in games where the defense allowed more than 30 points.

It’s a tall task for any offense to win a bunch of games when the defense is allowing that many points per game.

The easiest way for the Sooners to return to the top of the Big 12 and set themselves up to contend in the SEC? Fix the defense.

Unearthed some defensive building blocks

LUBBOCK, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 26: Danny Stutsman #28 of the Oklahoma Sooners sacks Tyler Shough #12 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the first quarter at Jones AT&T Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

In the wake of the defensive departures after the 2022 season, we should have known that there were going to be some growing pains in Brent Venables’ first year in Norman.

Arguably each of Oklahoma’s best defensive players at each level of the defense were sophomores. Ethan Downs, Danny Stutsman, and Billy Bowman were three of Oklahoma’s better defenders and each of them just completed their first seasons as starters.

Ethan Downs finished the season strong, tying with Reggie Grimes for the team lead with 4.5 sacks on the season and led the team in tackles for loss.

Stutsman led the team in tackles and snaps. The sophomore linebacker was second on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and five passes defended. He also had a pair of interceptions. Over the course of the season, he got more comfortable in the defense and showed glimpses of the star he can become in Norman.

When Billy Bowman went down after just five snaps against TCU, the pass defense struggled mightily. The Horned Frogs and then the Texas Longhorns did what they wanted through the air against the Sooners defense. He wasn’t always perfect, but he had some nice performances and finished second on the team with two interceptions. His athleticism, range, and tackling ability stood out during the season, and heading into his true junior year, Bowman’s ready to make a leap.

Other players like R Mason Thomas and Jaren Kanak flashed at different points in the season, providing a glimpse of the players they can be with some seasoning.

Offense was good but can be even better

Dec 29, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8) runs the ball against the Florida State Seminoles during the second quarter in the 2022 Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt that the Oklahoma Sooners’ offense was good enough to win more than six games in 2022, but they certainly could have been better. Looking back on the season as a whole, the Sooners struggled on third and fourth down and in the red zone.

Oklahoma ranked 50th in third down conversion rate at 40.9% and was 113th in the nation in fourth down conversion percentage at just 37.9%.

At times it seemed like the Sooners were playing for third or fourth down on a certain set of downs. Wide receiver screens or runs on second and third and long didn’t always set Oklahoma up to have more manageable money downs. The best way to be good on third and fourth downs is to simply avoid them altogether.

Jeff Lebby had a successful 2022 season as a whole, but throwing the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage as much as he wanted to and a propensity for calling jet sweeps often put the Sooners behind the chains. Of course, the play calls were effective at times, like the Gavin Freeman reverse for a touchdown. However, the risk mitigation in throwing wide receiver screens or swing passes created a more negative effect if the play was stopped for a loss. Especially as teams began to sit on those throws behind the line of scrimmage.

Jeff Lebby’s system will have many east-west elements to it, but if there’s an area it can improve, it’s in attacking opposing defenses and attacking the first down marker early in downs.

Though Oklahoma’s run game was one of the best in the nation, where they struggled in 2022, was in short-yardage situations. Too many times, the Sooners struggled to pick up third and fourth downs with three yards or less to go forcing Oklahoma to punt, kick a field goal, go for it on fourth, or turn it over on downs.

If the Sooners can find a way to be more efficient in key situations like third and fourth down and in the red zone, even just a little bit, it will go a long way to making the offense even more potent in 2023.

Offense has some players

Dec 29, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Jovantae Barnes (2) runs with the ball against the Florida State Seminoles in the first quarter during the 2022 Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Gone are [autotag]Marvin Mims[/autotag], [autotag]Eric Gray[/autotag], [autotag]Brayden Willis[/autotag], [autotag]Anton Harrison[/autotag], [autotag]Wanya Morris[/autotag], and [autotag]Theo Wease[/autotag]. That’s a lot of talent to try and replace on the offensive side of the ball.

But as we saw in the Sooners’ Cheez-It Bowl loss to Florida State, Oklahoma has some pieces to work with on offense.

[autotag]Jovantae Barnes[/autotag] and [autotag]Gavin Sawchuk[/autotag] led a ground-and-pound attack against the Seminoles and each finished with over 100 yards rushing. They did that even with three new starters along the offensive line and backup center [autotag]Robert Congel[/autotag] still filling in for [autotag]Andrew Raym[/autotag].

[autotag]Tyler Guyton[/autotag], [autotag]Aaryn Parks[/autotag], and [autotag]Savion Byrd[/autotag] filled in admirably for the Sooners. While their pass protection needs some work, they did a great job getting the running game going.

There will still be questions about the offensive line until we see them in action against the Big 12 next season. However, the Sooners aren’t relying simply on in-house options along the offensive line. They’ve added Miami (Ohio) guard [autotag]Caleb Shaffer[/autotag] and are pursuing Stanford left tackle [autotag]Walter Rouse[/autotag] and UCF center [autotag]Matthew Lee[/autotag] to help fortify the talent along the OL.

[autotag]Jalil Farooq[/autotag] looks to be the next man up at wide receiver for the Sooners after finishing third on the team in combined rushing and receiving yards behind Eric Gray and Marvin Mims. Farooq finished just four touches behind Mims in the 2022 season, and only Mims had more games of four receptions or more than Farooq.

Like the Sooners did a year ago with the defense, Oklahoma has a lot of snaps and production to replace on offense. Getting [autotag]Dillon Gabriel[/autotag] back is huge. That continuity will help provide the bridge as the Sooners retool their offense for 2023.

Recruiting will be just fine

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables is seen before a Bedlam college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Oklahoma won 28-13. Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Of all the things that didn’t go right for the Oklahoma Sooners in 2022, the most important thing that happened is that their 6-7 season didn’t affect them on the recruiting trail one bit.

Brent Venables and his staff kept landed all but three commitments in their one-year recruiting cycle for the 2023 class. Ashton Cozart flipped to Oregon before the summer, so he wasn’t affected there and family ties drove Colton Vasek and Anthony Evans to Texas and Georgia.

By the time the early signing period came to a close, the Sooners finished with a top-five class in the cycle.

They’ve stockpiled a lot of talent over the last two recruiting cycles, in particular on the defensive side of the ball. There’s a vision being laid out and a program being built in Norman and recruits and their families bought in regardless of the outcome of the 2022 season.

Eventually, that will pay off on the field.

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Story originally appeared on Sooners Wire