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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Newcomers star in front of packed house at spring game

Dillon Gabriel and Jovantae Barnes impressed during Saturday’s Red-White Game.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

More than 75,000 fans packed into Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon to watch the Oklahoma Sooners’ public debut under new coach Brent Venables in the annual Red-White Game. Venables seized on the opportunity with a pregame WWE-style monologue paying his respects to the program and the players who have passed through it. The celebration continued through halftime with a tribute to legendary quarterback Baker Mayfield.

On the field, the action looked surprisingly crisp for a spring game. (That’s not to say that the running clock in the second half wasn’t appreciated.) A few knee-jerk takeaways without the benefit of the rewatch.

*The tempo really stood out about the offensive side of the ball. OU helped bring the hurry-up offense into college football’s mainstream, but the Sooners had slowed to a crawl when they had possession under Lincoln Riley. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted to play fast.

*Dillon Gabriel’s comfort level with that tempo helps explain why he’s playing quarterback for OU right now. The transfer from Central Florida looked at ease operating the offense on Saturday, and the ball came out quickly when he was behind center. Aside from what appeared to be a misread on an interception, Gabriel played steady ball at the helm of both split squads on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Gabriel may not turn into a star, but he didn’t give any reason to believe Saturday that he can’t get the job done at QB for the Sooners this fall.

*The play at QB behind Gabriel, on the other hand... Let’s just say no one did anything during the spring game to suggest the offense can keep rolling if Gabriel were to go down when the bullets are live. Redshirt sophomore Micah Bowens arguably had the best day of the reserves, but we’re not talking about a high bar here.

Time to see if anything shakes loose in the transfer portal.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

*Freshman running back Jovantae Barnes also made a significant impression. Although he didn’t make many highlight-reel plays, he ran hard when given the opportunity. The absence of flash to Barnes’ game masks the likelihood that he runs with the type of authority that seems to guarantee a little extra distance on every attempt. By the end of the year, he may turn into OU’s most reliable back.

*Clearly, the receivers are still developing their timing with Gabriel. A gusting wind didn’t help the passing game, either.

All in all, the receiving corps played adequately. Among the more unproven players, Cody Jackson showed particular promise. Freshman Jayden Gibson was a popular target, although he wasn’t necessarily the most reliable. Gibson’s 95-yard touchdown catch from Bowens was arguably the play of the day for the offense.

*We’ll hold off on going too deep into the offensive line until the rewatch. Initial take: They were fine. Tough to make definitive judgments with the likely starters separated.

*On defense, OU played better in the trenches than expected. (Flip side: Maybe the OL stinks?) Notably, Jordan Kelley showed that he has made major strides under the new coaching staff and could find a routine home in the rotation on the interior.

Defensive end Ethan Downs also appears to be solidifying a spot in the starting lineup. He was the most active player on the entire defense on Saturday. Transfer Jonah Laulu gave reason to believe he will add solid depth on the edge.

*As expected, Key Lawrence flashed while playing deep safety, which looks like his full-time position at this point. He tattooed Drake Stoops on a play early in the game.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

*Players who lined up at nickel or SAM linebacker in the first half: Justin Broiles, Trey Morrison, Jaren Kanak. No sign of Shane Whitter there, so sounds like he is playing WILL LB.

*Junior cornerback Joshua Eaton made one of the best defensive plays of the game by breaking up a slant route in the end zone in the first half. With his length, Eaton should have the opportunity to grow into a contributor this year under the tutelage of CBs coach Jay Valai.