For Big 12 newcomer UCF, facing OU football & Dillon Gabriel 'circled up' on schedule

ARLINGTON, Texas ― Dillon Gabriel sat at the far end of radio row at Big 12 Media Days. Two lines of tables stretched all the way from one corner of the endzone to the other at JerryWorld, and he was talking to an Oklahoma City-area radio station at one of the last tables. That meant there were lots of other tables with lots of other radio stations doing interviews Thursday morning. But right there at the table next to the OU quarterback? UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir. Gabriel’s old school, UCF, is now a new school in the Big 12. Welcome to the bizzaro world of college athletics, where an athlete can leave a school that’s in one league for a school in another, then a year later find himself in the same conference as his old school. “It’s obviously the new day and age of college football,” Gabriel said. “Anything can really happen.” Ain’t that the truth. More: OU football coach Brent Venables talks Bedlam future, Danny Stutsman at Big 12 Media Days On the day the Knights made their first official appearance at a Big 12 event and the Sooners came to Big 12 football media days for the final time, no player provided a starker reminder of the craziness of college athletics nowadays than Gabriel. It’s a confluence of a bunch of different factors. Transfer portal. Conference realignment. Name, image and likeness. But time and again, it creates unexpected situations. “I was blocking for him a couple of years ago, and now, I’m going to be blocking against him,” UCF offensive lineman Lokahi Pauole said of Gabriel. “I’m still rooting for him, except for when we play him.” That will be on October 21, by the way. UCF will travel to OU, and while it won’t be the Knights’ first Big 12 game or even their first conference road game ― they’ll knock out both of those milestones on September 23 at Kansas State ― the game at OU will hold added juice. “That’s for sure one of the games that I’ve got circled up on the schedule,” Pauole said. “Definitely looking forward to going to Norman, not only because Dillon is there but because the crowd is crazy. I know they’ve got, like, a 90,000-person stadium, and I’m excited to play in front of that many people.” Gabriel, of course, isn’t the only football player who has transferred from one Big 12 school to another. Even though such a thing was rare a couple of years ago ― remember when head coaches blocked (or tried to block) players from transferring in conference? ― it’s commonplace now. Gabriel isn’t even in a class by himself among quarterbacks in the league. At least three others have played for other teams in the Big 12. Alan Bowman transferred to Oklahoma State from Texas Tech by way of Michigan, Chandler Morris transferred to TCU from OU and Donovan Smith transferred to Houston from Texas Tech. More: Tramel: Big 12 leaders trust Commissioner Brett Yormark, even if they don't agree None of those guys have been named the starter at their new schools, by the way. But Gabriel holds one unique distinction: he’s the only Big 12 quarterback who transferred from one of the league’s newbies, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston or UCF. “It’s gonna be cool,” he said of facing the Knights. “Super excited for the season and taking it one step at a time, but excited for obviously that game.” His three years at UCF included some of the best moments of his career. Big wins. School records. National acclaim. “Dillon is a phenomenal player,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said. Gabriel was one of the players Malzahn inherited when he took over at UCF after the 2020 season. Gabriel signed with the Knights when former Sooner star Josh Heupel was the coach and had already been there two seasons and started 22 games when Malzahn arrived. “Every day in practice, he would do something and you’d go, ‘Wow,’” Malzahn remembered. “The year I had with him, I wish he hadn’t got hurt. I think it would’ve turned out a little different.” Even though Gabriel had some highs moments at UCF, he also had the low of getting injured in the third week of the 2021 season. UCF trailed 42-35 at Louisville in the final seconds and opted to try to lateral its way to victory. Win via trickeration. It didn’t work. Worse, amid the craziness of all the laterals, Gabriel was injured. He broke his left clavicle and missed the remainder of the season. He never played another game for UCF, transferring to OU the next offseason. More: Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy trying to prove 'things don't fix themselves' “I feel like in general I’ve just grown a bunch and matured a bunch,” Gabriel said of how he’s changed since in UCF days. “I was a 18-year-old starting as a freshman, and now I’m a 22-year-old with all this experience and just trying to use that to my advantage. “I think I’ve learned the most through experience, kind of being thrown in the fire.” There was clearly mutual admiration both ways. “Well respected,” UCF defensive tackle Ricky Barber said of Gabriel. “Everybody knew Dillon Gabriel. Around the school, it was just DG.” So, is it weird to think about UCF playing against Gabriel and OU? “Not really,” Barber said. “The way the transfer portal is … people move around.” Schools move around, too. And sometimes that means a quarterback finds himself at Big 12 Media Days doing a radio interview next to the athletic director from his old school that has just joined a new conference. Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or on Threads at jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

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