Skip to main content

The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2022 -- No. 5: Jeff Lebby, Oklahoma

If Dillon Gabriel stays healthy, recent history tells us Oklahoma will still be really, really good on offense.

Who: Jeff Lebby, Oklahoma

Title: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach

Previous stop: Ole Miss offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2020-21)

Why he's important: Since Bob Stoops rolled into town ahead of the 1999 season, here is a list of Oklahoma's offensive play-callers:

-- Mike Leach
-- Mark Mangino
-- Chuck Long
-- Kevin Wilson
-- Kevin Sumlin
-- Josh Heupel
-- Jay Norvell
-- Lincoln Riley

Each and every one of those eight men would go on to lead FBS programs of their own, six (so far) at Power 5 institutions.

Since that 1999 season, four Sooner quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy (Jason White, 2003; Sam Bradford, 2008; Baker Mayfield, 2017; Kyler Murray, 2018). Two more (Josh Heupel, 2000; Jalen Hurts, 2019) scored runner-up finishes. That means, from a college perspective, the seventh most successful Sooner quarterback of the last two decades is Landry Jones. All Jones did was set OU records for passing yards and touchdowns, win a share of two Big 12 championships, and play six NFL seasons. 

The Sooners have averaged at least 30 points a game for 16 consecutive seasons. They topped 40 points a game in eight of those 16, including six of the seven seasons Lincoln Riley spent on campus. (Two more touchdowns in 2021 would've put the Riley era at a perfect 7-for-7.)

That's what you call legacy. That's what you call expectation.

Jeff Lebby inherits an enormous legacy and a tremendous void. 

OU's leading returning passer, Ralph Rucker, hoisted all of two passes as a true freshman last season. Both leading rushers, running back Kennedy Brooks and quarterback Caleb Williams, are gone. The Sooners do return leading receiver Marvin Mims, but the most productive returnee behind him is Drake Stoops, who caught 16 balls in 2021. All three tight ends are gone. Three starting offensive linemen are gone.

According to Bill Connelly's returning production rankings, the OU offense places 117th

But that's not to say this is a total rebuild. For one, the staff is a mix of new and old. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, running backs coach DeMarco Murray and tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley return from the previous staff. Bedenbaugh has been in Norman since the Bob Stoops regime; Murray and Finley played for Stoops. Wide receivers coach Cale Gundy was the elder statesman in the staff room until last weekend.

Lebby himself signed with Oklahoma as an offensive lineman out of Central Texas, but an injury pushed him into coaching before his college playing career ever began. He was a student assistant for parts of Murray and Finley's careers. After spending a post-graduate season in Texas high school ball, Lebby joined the proverbial Art Briles coaching family at Baylor in 2008. He joined the literal Art Briles family in 2011, when he married Art's daughter and Kendal's sister, Staley. 

Lebby rose from a quality control coach to passing game coordinator while in Waco. When the program erupted amid the campus-wide sexual assault scandal of 2016, Lebby landed at Southeastern for the 2017 season. In one season at the NAIA level, Lebby's offense led the nation in scoring.

He joined former teammate Josh Heupel's UCF staff in 2018. That group took over the "national championship" team of 2017 with McKenzie Milton set at quarterback for the next two seasons -- until a catastrophic knee injury knocked him out for the end of '18 and all of '19. In stepped a true freshman Hawaiian named Dillon Gabriel. 

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: No. 15 Tim DeRutyer (Texas Tech); No. 14 Rob Sale (Florida); No. 13 Joe Gillespie (TCU); No. 12: Brennan Marion (Texas); No. 11: Derek Mason (Oklahoma State); No. 10: Eric Kiesau (Auburn); No. 9: Mike Denbrock (LSU); Jesse Minter (Michigan); No. 7: Mark Whipple (Nebraska); No. 6: Josh Henson (USC).

Gabriel beat Stanford in his third college game and ended his freshman season seventh in the country in yards per attempt (9.2) and 13th in efficiency (156.92). 

Coordinator and quarterback's paths forked from there. Lebby went to Ole Miss while Gabriel remained at UCF for the next two seasons before transferring... to UCLA. In a world where Lebby isn't OU's offensive coordinator, Gabriel is a Bruin right now. Instead, Oklahoma's new, inexperienced offense is led by a quarterback with 913 career attempts. (The number would be over 1,100 if not for a season-ending collarbone injury Gabriel suffered at the end of UCF's third game of 2021.)

In 26 games, Gabriel averaged 10 yards per attempt 10 times, and hit 9.9 twice. In 2019, Lebby and Gabriel's only year together, UCF trailed only Joe Burrow, J'Marr Chase and company with 42 completions of 30-plus yards. 

“I think one of the greatest things that Dillon does is throw the deep ball,” Lebby said earlier this month. “I think if you look at all of his throws on tape, and you go back to his freshman year, his sophomore year, and then before he got hurt last year–he can push the ball down the field.”

“So, he’s got great touch on it. Understands how to get the ball out of his hand a little earlier, if he needs to, but that’s a strength of his for sure.”

Mims caught 32 passes for 705 yards last season, a 22.03 average that ranked second in college football among all players with at least 30 receptions. 

One cannot concoct an offense simply around hitting deep balls to a specific receiver, but the occupying a safety with the constant threat of Gabriel-to-Mims deep balls is a nice building block for an offense that's unsettled elsewhere. (40 percent of OU's roster is brand new to the program, Brent Venables noted at Big 12 media days. Half of OU's starting offense could be transfers.)

For a defensive-minded first-time head coach, one potential friction point could be the pace of the offense. In the past three seasons, Lebby's units ran 78, 80, and 78 plays a game. Clemson was in the low 70s over that span, peaking at 75 in 2020 (with third-year Trevor Lawrence at the helm) and bottoming out at 69 (with first-year DJ Uiagaleilei running things). Oklahoma snapped the ball just 65.5 times per game in 2021. 

As of now, without having run a single 30-second three-and-out, Venables wants Lebby to drive as fast as the car allows. Practicing with urgency, Venables said, will help both sides of the ball play with urgency. 

“That's great if they can get to a pace where, next thing you know, they're dragging people up and down the field,” Venables told The Oklahoman. “That’s the goal. That's the mindset. You want to taste blood. You want to go for the jugular.” 

One advantage of building an offense where so few of the parts are established: it allows the coaches to push scheme in whatever direction the players take it. 

"We're going to play in 11 (personnel), 12, 20, 10. We're going to play in all these different packages to where we're getting guys involved. I think it's important to find a way to get our best guys on the field. As long as we're doing that then we're going to have a chance to roll like we want to," Lebby said. 

Lebby promised Oklahoma will have a "physical" run game -- this makes him different than the other 130 FBS play-callers -- and credits his O-line background with helping him understand the game from the inside out. Lebby's offenses have ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushes each of the past three seasons, including 588 attempts in 13 games at Ole Miss last year. Matt Corral accounted for 152 of those carries, most on the team. In 2019, UCF ran the ball 559 times; five players totaled between 71 and 113 carries, with Gabriel on the low end.

The smart money is on Gabriel being below 71 carries this year. If he takes every important snap, Oklahoma could be in the mix to return to the Big 12 Championship after an unfathomable 1-year drought. If Gabriel gets injured along the way, OU could be in for a full-on rebuild.

However, history says that even if Oklahoma is down in 2022, it won't be down for long. 

In fact, Sooner fans have been practicing football astrology since Lincoln Riley's stunning departure. The last time OU had a head coaching search, it ended with a defensive coordinator from the Southeast. That first-time head coach hired an envelope-pushing offensive coordinator with no college playing experience of his own. The head coach and coordinator brought in a transfer quarterback from the West. 

The Sooners went a modest 7-5 in year one, but all turned out okay. The head coach got a Big 12 head job after the season, and the Sooners won the national title in year two.