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Oklahoma Sooners Football: What to watch versus UTEP

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Eyes around Norman this weekend will be watching more than just new coach Brent Venables in OU’s first game.


Days away from the debut of new head coach Brent Venables, let’s take a look at what to watch on Saturday when the Oklahoma Sooners host the UTEP Miners.

Which Cheetah is on the prowl?

Syndication: The Oklahoman Nathan J Fish/The Oklahoman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Venables has fielded multiple questions during his media availabilities about the status of the Cheetah position, a hybrid safety-linebacker whom OU’s defensive scheme will value for his versatility. The first depth chart published this week showed ex-inside linebacker DaShaun White bumping outside to play there. Second-stringer Justin Harrington moved to Cheetah from his spot in the defensive backfield.

In an ideal world, the Cheetah’s skill set can keep him on the field against a variety of formations and personnel groupings. That could spell trouble for White if the Miners try to set him up in coverage mismatches. In that case, keep an eye on how Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof try to mitigate those disadvantages through zone coverages and help over the top. Also, let’s see how often White ends up dropping back to the middle of the field at safety depth.

Meanwhile, Harrington’s deployment could offer some clues about potential wrinkles at Cheetah in the future.

Dillon Gabriel’s legs

Hopefully, he doesn’t use them much.

Coming off a 2021 season in which OU’s new starting quarterback broke his collarbone, new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby has to balance Gabriel’s health against the capacity to unlock the OU attack. Taking away Gabriel as a running threat entirely likely puts a cap on the Sooners can accomplish on offense.

That probably won’t matter much against UTEP, but Gabriel’s running ability could become a more significant factor in OU’s success down the line.

Major contribution

Syndication: The Oklahoman STEVE SISNEY / USA TODAY NETWORK

Conversely, watching Marcus Major tote the rock sounds appealing.

Now in his fourth year with the program, Major has yet to capitalize on the flashes of brilliance he showed in limited opportunities. In OU’s last two bowl games, for example, Major has rushed for a combined 164 yards. Those two contests account for more than half of his career rushing total, though.

Major’s running style looks like a natural fit in Lebby’s zone scheme, and the Sooners will need a complementary running back to share the workload with Eric Gray. The UTEP game offers a chance to see if the Oklahoma City Millwood High School alum is up to the challenge.

When the Miners go deep

UTEP loves pushing the ball down the field in the passing game. Quarterback Gavin Hardison averaged nine yards per throw last season, which ranked 10th nationally. His completions in the Miners’ game against North Texas last week included bombs of 49, 38 and 32 yards.

The UTEP offense features two dangerous threats out wide in Tyrin Smith and Reynaldo Flores. The duo will give cornerbacks Jaden Davis and Woodi Washington a stiff test to start the year, along with the rest of the OU defensive backfield.

Where does the pass rush come from (if there is one)?

Of course, Hardison won’t complete many throws downfield if he’s on his back.

The Sooners lost 21.5 of their 33 sacks from last season with the departures of Isaiah Thomas, Nik Bonitto, Perrion Winfrey and Brian Asamoah. That means it’s no sure thing this version of the OU defense can pressure the UTEP QB consistently.

Filthy blitz packages have become a hallmark of Venables’ defensive scheme. If he has to dig into his exotics to generate a pass rush on Saturday, that may be a bad sign for OU’s defense going forward.