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OU football spring game: Five takeaways from first Red-White scrimmage of Brent Venables' era

NORMAN — OU's spring football game on Saturday served as the first chance for fans to watch the team's retooled roster take to the field.

But Brent Venables was watching how his players stepped off the field. 

The first-year head coach was looking for a "Johnny jack around" — someone who wasn't fully sprinting off the field. The plan was to make an example of that poor soul, but the opportunity never presented itself. 

"I couldn't find anyone," Venables said. "When we showed up today, our mindset was right. Our focus and our intensity was right. That's what has me fired up."

OU's effort showed on the field as well.

In a contest where the two teams were split up via a draft, the Red team earned a 21-17 win over the White team.

Here are five takeaways from the Sooners’ spring game:

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OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8) throws a pass during Saturday's spring game.

Ethan Downs comes up big

It isn’t uncommon for coaches to get creative with motivational speeches.

Some say OU defensive ends coach Miguel Chavis took the cake, although he had a different dessert of choice.

“(Chavis) said it’s so easy to get a little waffle cone and go to a soft-serve machine and get you a little soft serve ice cream right on the top,” sophomore defensive end Ethan Downs said on April 4. “But it takes some grit to get in there, get that spoon, get in that bucket of ice cream and get that mint chocolate chip or whatever it is.”

Albeit odd, the metaphor resonated with Downs, who came out with a chip on his shoulder Saturday.

Dillon Gabriel completed a screen pass to Drake Stoops with 3:40 left in the first quarter when Downs came flying in for a tackle. The sound of clashing shoulder pads rang throughout Owen Field as Stoops coughed up the football, and Josh Eaten recovered it.

Downs found himself in the middle of another takeaway in the second quarter. White’s Tawee Walker tried to punch it into the end zone at the 10:09 mark, but Justin Harrington forced a fumble that Downs recovered for a touchback.

Takeaways were a point of emphasis last season for the Sooners, and Downs’ performance on Saturday is a good sign of what’s to come in 2022.

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OU coach Brent Venables poses for a photo with former players and family members before the Sooners' spring game Saturday at at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman.

Jovantae’s barn burner

Jovantae Barnes welcomed the contact.

Red held a 7-3 lead at White’s 3-yard line with 1:17 left in the first quarter when Gabriel handed the ball off to Barnes. The freshman broke a tackle before running directly into a scrum at the 2-yard line.

Barnes wouldn’t be denied. He kept his feet moving and willed his way into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day.

Barnes established himself as a red zone threat in his OU debut. 

The 6-foot, 203-pound back finished with 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Both of his scores came from inside the 5-yard line.

Roles are up for grabs in the backfield following the departure of veteran workhorse Kennedy Brooks, who ran for career-highs of 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season before declaring for the NFL Draft.

Eric Gray and Marcus Major are a pair of returners who are expected to take a bulk of the carries this season, but Barnes made a strong case for some playing time on Saturday.

More:How is Kani Walker fitting in with OU's defense? Transfer DB learning 'to be a brand on the football field'

New quarterback, same top target

Whether it was Spencer Rattler or Caleb Williams throwing the ball last season, Marvin Mims was consistently OU’s top receiving option.

The then-sophomore wideout hauled in 32 catches for 705 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games. Rattler and Williams then transferred to South Carolina and USC, respectively, this offseason, and Gabriel transferred to OU after three seasons at UCF.

Despite having a new quarterback under center, it didn’t take long for Mims to establish himself as a receiving threat on Saturday.

Red held a 14-3 lead in the closing seconds of the first quarter when Mims lost his defender with a burst of speed before streaking up the middle of the field. Gabriel hit him in stride for an easy 33-yard touchdown.

Mims finished with two catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. He tied with Cody Jackson for a team-high five targets.

With former OU wide receivers Michael Woods preparing for the draft and Jadon Haselwood now playing at Arkansas, Mims should shine this season.

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Marcus Stripling shines in the trenches

A wave of players entered the transfer portal this offseason following then-head coach Lincoln Riley’s decision to bolt for USC, but senior defensive end Marcus Stripling stayed put.

“I just got to hone in on me and my game and take my game to the next level,” Stripling said on April 11. “I didn’t want to really move around and go to a different school, I just wanted to make this situation right here work.”

Stripling’s dedication paid off on Saturday. The veteran defensive lineman finished with game-highs of five tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks.

Roles are up for grabs in the trenches following Isaiah Thomas, Nik Bonitto and Perrion Winfrey’s decisions to declare for the draft. Stripling appears to be ready for the upgrade.

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Dillon Gabriel makes his OU debut

All eyes were on Gabriel during Saturday’s spring game.

The UCF transfer made his OU debut under center in a contest where he played for both teams. Gabriel went 19-for-28 through the air to finish with 250 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception.

The highlight of Gabriel’s debut came in the first quarter when he connected with Mims for a 33-yard touchdown toss, but he also had a few hiccups. 

The biggest miscue came with 1:01 left in the opening quarter when Gabriel threw a pass in the direction of Jalil Farooq only to watch Kendall Dennis come down with the interception.

OU showcased its entire quarterback room on Saturday. 

Redshirt sophomore Micah Bowens went 1-for-3 for 95 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt freshman Ralph Rucker went 5-for-9 for 62 yards. Redshirt freshman Ben Harris went 2-for-4 for 20 yards. Freshman Nick Evers went 0-for-1 for zero yards.