Sooner fans can only hope Nick Saban takes Jeff Lebby off their hands
The tea leaves say Sooner offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby may be headed to Alabama.
It’s not like anybody’s tracked a Lebby plane to Tuscaloosa, or Lebby himself into a private meeting room inside DFW, the airport or the Metroplex.
But the tea leaves are sometimes right, especially when facts of choice are tossed into the mix, like that a Lebby-coordinated Ole Miss offense gained 647 yards and scored 48 points against the Tide on Oct. 10, 2020, and nobody’s gained so much real estate against it since.
The tea leaves are merely this:
As noted by the great Berry Tramel, Oklahoman sports columnist, both al.com and BamaOnline have put Lebby atop their lists of likely candidates to succeed Bill O’Brien as the Crimson Tide’s next offensive coordinator.
They could know nothing.
They could know something.
Or they themselves could be snowed by one game occurring three seasons ago without taking into account anything that’s happened at Oklahoma since Brent Venables became coach and Lebby his offensive coordinator.
Or they could cherry pick from Lebby’s Norman record, from recruiting success, which has been terrific, to the Sooners’ last time under the lights, when despite portal and draft defections against an 11th-ranked Florida State squad missing nobody they somehow played the Seminoles within 35-32 and with a real chance to win.
Yet, on the off chance ’Bama coach Nick Saban’s due diligence includes a deep dive not only through every play Lebby called this past season, but every press conference, too, pregame on Mondays and postgame on Saturdays, it’s hard to see the Tide taking Lebby of the Sooners’ hands.
Let us review some of what so many watched play out, though mostly without identifying a pattern.
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• Sept. 24, Kansas State at OU:
Oklahoma’s 41-34 loss that day doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect given Kansas State’s season and No. 14 final ranking. Still, there was a problem that likely cost it the game.
The Wildcats led 14-0 quickly but the Sooners were within 24-20 following Zach Schmit’s 44-yard field goal 3:18 into the second half … after which, Kansas State in retreat, Lebby went crazy conservative with his play calls, taking the ball out of quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s hands, hoping to eliminate risk once the contest had stabilized.
The problem was Oklahoma slowed and quit scoring, Kansas State nabbed the next 10 points and only after that, with 8:00 remaining, did Lebby turn Gabriel loose again … after which he completed 10 of 12 tosses for 103 yards and two touchdowns, none of it with a chance to tie or take the lead.
• Nov. 19, Oklahoma State at OU:
The Sooners won, of course, 28-13, but did not score a point after the first quarter and, famously, Lebby (and Venables, too) had no clue how to manage the second half.
Lebby later copped to regretting going conservative, while Venables later copped to regretting not running more clock: two failures that threatened to put the Pokes right back in the game.
It was kind of hilarious.
The Sooners maintained an after-half tempo as though in a hurry to make something happen, yet called plays designed to go nowhere.
It added up to an impossible 11 Michael Turk punts, a 37:38 to 22:22 Oklahoma State time-of-possession advantage and only one first down in 14 third-down attempts.
• Nov. 26, at Texas Tech:
A 51-48 end-of-the-regular-season setback, the Sooner defense was the primary culprit.
Gabriel may have enjoyed his best day as a collegian, completing 28 of 40 passes for 449 yards and six touchdowns against a single pick and given that backdrop you had to like the Sooners’ overtime chances.
Until Lebby struck.
First play of the extra frame he went tricky, calling for a reverse that put the ball in Drake Stoops’ hands to throw it.
Throw it he did to an open Gabriel, who caught it for a gain of 13. Yet, lobbing it, Stoops’ toss allowed Tech’s Reggie Pearson time to reach the Sooner quarterback-turned-receiver and crush him.*
* Pearson has since transferred to Oklahoma.
The victory was Gabriel only came out of the game for a play after writhing and rolling on the ground for several seconds.
He returned facing second-and-8 and for that play Theo Wease got into formation late, giving Tech time to sub and leaving OU scrambling to get the play off. Eric Gray lost 3 yards. Then, facing third-and-11, two plays after he was plastered, Gabriel took off on a quarterback draw, losing more yardage.
Lebby put his most important player at great risk on first down rather than saving his trick play until he absolutely needed it. Two plays later his troops were not ready to enter the game, torching timing, leading to a loss. The next play, needing 11 yards, he went with a QB draw from a QB who’d just been blasted.
Was he playing for a field goal to put the game in the hands of a defense that had already allowed 48 points?
Not in retrospect, but in real time.
There were other gaffes.
One week after playing well in a loss to Baylor, Lebby’s offense went nowhere in a 23-20 loss at West Virginia, converting 1 of 11 first downs the week before converting 1 of 14 at Bedlam.
Against Texas, when it was immediately clear Davis Beville had no chance in Gabriel’s absence, Lebby waited for garbage time to try somebody else, later explaining, in so many words, he didn’t believe a starter could play his way off the field because only “preparation” created “predictable outcomes,” when nothing was more quickly predictable than Beville’s failure.
In the same presser, Lebby disagreed with the concept of a “gamer,” the clearly better player when the lights come on, when things count, rather than in practice, when they don’t.
Like, shouldn’t he know who his “gamers” are rather than argue against their existing?
It was funny, too, how Gray became more productive while the offense became less productive.
And shouldn’t an offense ranking 13th in yardage (474.0 ypg) rank higher than 32nd in scoring (32.8 ppg), 49th in third-down conversion rate (40.5 percent) and 115th in fourth-down conversion rate (37.9 percent)?
The worst part was this pattern:
How Lebby chose to operate on the field frequently made no tactical sense. But when he tried to explain it the following Monday he often said he should have done something else instead. Like real time moved too fast for him.
He’s not there to guess.
Even if his unit fails, he’s there to know.
Do you think Venables doubts the soundness of his defensive calls or just the fact they didn’t work or weren’t executed properly?
Surely, if Nick Saban goes deep enough, he’ll get to the truth about Jeff Lebby.
Yes, media has struggled to machete its way to what’s apparent if it only would. But certainly the best coach in college football will figure it out.
Or maybe he won’t and hire the guy.
It wouldn’t be the worst thing.