It’s a new dawn for the Oklahoma Sooners in 2022. After a tumultuous 2021 that saw the shocking departure of head coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams, Oklahoma football will look to rebound with a new man in charge of the team in the form of a familiar face: Brent Venables. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the burning questions for the Sooners.

Oklahoma Football 2022 Burning Questions

3. Who’s taking the leap on defense?

The arrival of Venables in Norman is a sign of better things to come for Oklahoma’s defense that was mediocre, even in the Big 12 in 2021. Oklahoma football finished last season just sixth in the conference with 390.8 total yards surrendered per contest and also sixth with 25.8 points allowed per game. That wouldn’t fly for Venables, who will now have to transform that defense without two crucial pieces it had in 2021, with both Brian Asamoah and Nik Bonitto now in the NFL.

Asamoah led the Sooners’ defensive line in 2021 with 80 total tackles, while Bonitto was second on the team with seven sacks. Not only that, but the three of the Sooners’ top sack-getters in 2021 are all gone, with Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey both turning pros in the offseason. That means the tandem of Reggie Grimes and Ethan Downs has big shoes to fill in 2022. The two project to be the defensive end starters for the Sooners, with senior transfers Jonah Laulu and T.D. Roof coming in to provide more experience on the defensive line.

Downs could be a solid bet to break out after a freshman season in which he was able to deliver the goods consistently when given the opportunity. In 2021, Downs had 14 tackles (9 solo) and 0.5 sacks plus a forced fumble in eight games.

Senior DaShaun White is also still with the Sooners, and he could be the leader of this group that is poised to make loud noises in Venables’ first year in Norman.

2. Can Eric Gray stay as the top option for the Oklahoma football’s ground attack?

The Sooners’ ground attack looked fine in 2021, with running back Kennedy Brooks and quarterback Caleb Williams leading the rush. Brooks has now taken his talents to the NFL, while Williams has long ago packed his bags for the West Coast, leaving big holes in Oklahoma’s backfield. For context, Brooks was fourth overall in the Big 12 in 2021 with 1,253 rushing yards, while Williams was the only non-running back on the top 15 list of Big 12’s top rushers by average with 39.55 rushing yards per contest.

The presumptive no. 1 running back now for the Sooners is incumbent Eric Gray, who was just third on the team last season with a mere output of 412 rushing yards and a couple of touchdowns on 78 carries. He was solid, though, with 5.3 yards per carry. However, an increase in work volume in 2022 could also mean less efficient performance. As it stands, he hasn’t completely widened the gap between him and other running backs on Oklahoma’s roster that features the likes of fellow returnee Marcus Major and a couple of freshmen in Javontae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuck.

Major is seemingly the biggest threat to Gray’s starting role. A former four-star prospect, Major was only able to play in three games in 2021 due to eligibility issues but those are all behind him now. As someone who has played behind the likes of Rhamondre Stevenson, Trey Sermon, and Brooks, Major does come across as someone who could potentially be the running back group’s biggest star in 2022.

Nevertheless, Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby continues to be adamant that Eric Gray is the lead man for the team’s ground game that burned rubber for 180.3 rushing yards per contest in 2021.

Per Ryan Chapman of Sports Illustrated:

“The room is going to start with EG,” Lebby said. “Eric has done an unbelievable job. I’ve said this since being around him for five days – the guy’s a pro. Everything he does is in a professional manner. Could not be more excited about where he’s at and what he’s going to be able to do for us this fall.”

1. Can Dillon Gabriel fill the void left by Caleb Williams?

Filling the void under center left by Williams is going to be a tough ask for any quarterback, but the Sooners might just have the perfect one for that challenge in Dillon Gabriel. The incoming senior quarterback has been ranked by ESPN fourth overall in its list of top 50 newcomers.

“Gabriel played for offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby at UCF, and now Lebby is the coordinator at Oklahoma. The two are reuniting at a perfect time after the Sooners lost quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Spencer Rattler. In 2019 and 2020, Gabriel threw for a combined 7,223 yards and 61 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He suffered an injury that cut his 2021 season short and now he has an opportunity to lead Oklahoma.”

Gabriel’s familiarity with Lebby’s system will go a long way in fast-tracking his ascent to the group of elite quarterbacks in the Big 12 — if he isn’t already part of it. Oklahoma football’s offense has always been high-flying, and Gabriel appears to have the chops to lead the Sooners’ attack ripped opposing defenses in 2021 for 36.0 points per game.