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Spencer Rattler Had All the Hype. Then Caleb Williams Rewrote History.

Quarterback changes happen in college football all the time. The rise of Oklahoma’s freshman phenom is different.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Unprecedented” is a diva of a word. Very dramatic. Maudlin, even. It’s got theater teacher energy. It wears a scarf. It wants you to project. Sports fans like to throw the word around with reckless abandon, but more often than not the thing they’re referencing is not unprecedented. Maybe it’s stellar or luxurious or state of the art, but not unprecedented. Few things are.

Once you feel like you know a sport, a certain kind of predictability can be comforting. In football, 11 players take the field for each side. There are four quarters and a halftime. Teams need to gain 10 yards for a first down and have four attempts to do it. These are some terms. Bump and run, play action, Gus Johnson, etc. Now watch the game at any level and you’ll basically understand what you’re seeing.

In rare instances, though, a situation comes along and feels new. And that newness recalibrates your expectations going forward. It changes the way you see. It changes the way you think. Something different is now possible. It has happened before. Caleb Williams taking the Oklahoma starting quarterback job from Spencer Rattler is one of those things.

On paper, someone like Rattler losing his job does not make sense. His resumé is cartoonish. He was the top-rated quarterback in the country coming out of high school. According to 247Sports, he was a five-star prospect and the 11th-ranked player in the 2019 class; according to Rivals, he was a five-star talent ranked 13th. He was the 2018 Elite 11 MVP and a standout in the 2019 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He was even the star of a Netflix show. This was all before he arrived on campus.

Then Rattler showed promise once he got to Oklahoma. Last year, his first as the starter, he was named first-team AP All–Big 12. In a shortened season, he threw for 3,031 yards with 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He was an FWAA freshman All-American and the most outstanding player of the Big 12 championship game. Heading into this season, he had all the glitter. He was the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and a projected first-round NFL draft pick. Some even had him going no. 1.

Never before has someone had all that going for him, stayed healthy, and been replaced. Even if the hyped player doesn’t meet expectations in a given season, his team probably doesn’t have anyone talented enough to justify making a switch. It doesn’t happen. Then, at Oklahoma, it did.

Oklahoma v Kansas State
Spencer Rattler
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Stranger still is that Rattler wasn’t playing awful in 2021. He wasn’t lighting the world on fire, but he wasn’t some disaster. He threw for 10 touchdowns and five interceptions through six starts before getting pulled late in the second quarter of the Texas game on October 9. He completed 74.3 percent of his passes with an average of 7.8 yards per attempt. That’s not bad. That’s not nothing. Of course, it’s not great either, and greatness is what’s expected from Oklahoma quarterbacks, particularly in the wake of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts. Rattler wasn’t playing inspired football. He wasn’t making his teammates better. And the offense rarely seemed in rhythm. The Sooners were a sprinter with a rock in their cleat. Or maybe one of the cleats’ laces was untied? And sometimes the cleats were tied together? Oklahoma was winning but something was ineffectual about the whole thing. There was limited pizzazz. The explosiveness people expect from a Lincoln Riley–coached offense just wasn’t there.

Call it malaise, call it pajama ball. The juice was not there. That plus the turnovers in the Texas game and the monster waiting in the wings mixed a bad cocktail. Who cares if Williams was thrown into the fire? Experience can be overrated. More often than not, talent wins. Riley knew what he had in Williams and let him loose. Cut the chains off the dragon, watch him burn it all down. The move fulfilled a request made earlier that day by Texas fans standing on the College GameDay set. Same as the Oklahoma student section a couple weeks prior, they wanted him. They got him.

The guy plays to the back row. Same as the Longhorns, Rattler ran into a buzz saw. He ran into precedent.

There have been half versions of this in the past. Quarterbacks lose their jobs all the time. The starter struggles. The backup comes in, plays well, and that’s that. But go through some of the most prominent quarterback changes in college football history, and it’s clear there’s never been a scenario entirely like this.

Sometimes a school starts a quarterback it can win a lot of games with before a young hottie comes in carrying a bunch of hype and makes things spicy. Take the Kelly Bryant–to–Trevor Lawrence swap at Clemson. Bryant had led the 2017 Tigers to a 12-1 record and a College Football Playoff berth. He started the first four games of his senior campaign in 2018, but the freshman Lawrence’s ability was plain. The team’s ceiling was higher with him under center. Clemson made a switch and won the championship.

Lawrence became the first true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. But Holieway only got the job because the guy ahead of him got hurt. That guy was Troy Aikman. He transferred to UCLA and no one has heard from him since.

Health is the common denominator in most high-profile quarterback changes. It’s why Brook Berringer took the Nebraska reins from Tommie Frazier in 1994, why Peyton Manning took the Tennessee job from Todd Helton that same year, and why Cardale Jones ascended to the top of the Ohio State depth chart in 2014. This happens in the NFL too: Tom Brady got his shot because Mo Lewis knocked out Drew Bledsoe; Steve Young got his because Joe Montana hurt his elbow. Montana never recovered. Banished to a life of WellCare health plans and Skechers. A fate worse than death.

Sometimes the young guy with supreme talent doesn’t get the gig. The same season Lawrence showed up at Clemson, Justin Fields showed up at Georgia. Fields was a can’t-miss recruit with NFL-caliber upside who was supposed to be the Bulldogs quarterback of the future. Jake Fromm was a good quarterback who once got a fishhook stuck in his calf. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart elected to stick with Fromm as starter and kept Fields on the bench. Fields elected to transfer to Ohio State. Fromm was solid, but not someone who would start on Sundays. Ron Jaworski is not getting to half-mast over some Fromm tape.

The closest thing to this year’s Rattler-Williams situation was the Jalen Hurts–Tua Tagovailoa saga at Alabama. But this is different from that. Less twins, more cousins. For one, the Bama switch happened at halftime of the national title game and was followed by an offseason in which Tua won the job. And two, Hurts wasn’t completing nearly 75 percent of his passes when he got shelved. This is his game log from the 2017 season:

He wasn’t exactly slinging darts. Hurts stayed in Tuscaloosa the season after Tagovailoa took his job, got pushed into duty during the 2018 SEC championship game, and won the thing for Bama. If you knew that, you probably also knew that Hurts transferred to Oklahoma for his final year of college eligibility, where his backup was … true freshman Spencer Rattler. The Sooners’ blueprint seemed clear from that point: Five-star world-eater quarterback comes in, sits behind a Heisman finalist for a year, then puts up video-game numbers for two seasons, rinse-repeat ad infinitum. Rattler sat behind Hurts. Williams would sit behind Rattler, then go supernova in his couple years as The Man. Malachi Nelson, a 2023 five-star prospect out of Los Alamitos, California, would be next in line. So on and so forth until Riley peaces out or the sun explodes.

It would’ve been nice anyway. It’s news when bad quarterbacks replace each other. When a player projected to go in the top 10 gets benched, it’s a jaw-dropper. The thing about Caleb Williams is, so is he.

Enter Williams, glowing, upside-down longhorns painted on his fingernails. A kid so self-assured he was willing to walk on if Oklahoma signed another quarterback in the 2021 recruiting class. His ability is undeniable. As a word, “undeniable” isn’t as narcissistic as “unprecedented.” It’s quieter. Apparently, “undeniability” isn’t even a word. It should be. Merriam-Webster or whoever has authority on such matters needs to step up its game lest it get replaced too. It’s like Brad Pitt told Grady in Moneyball: “Adapt or die.”

Sometimes a coach’s hand gets forced. Maybe if it were only affecting Riley he could’ve lied to himself—heart talks brain into bad decision, who among us?—but he couldn’t lie to the team. The team knows who gives it the best chance to win. Look no further than the uptick in energy when Williams is in the game.

Oklahoma closed out its 52-31 win over TCU on October 16 with a nine-play scoring drive that lasted nearly six minutes. Frogs on skates. On that drive, Williams didn’t run or pass once. He just handed off, again and again, as the Sooners marched 68 yards to paydirt. Former Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard was on the sideline by the offensive linemen after that score. On his and Teddy Lehman’s podcast, The Oklahoma Breakdown, Ikard applauded what Williams did next. “He came over there and he just looked at all the O-linemen and he said, ‘Six minutes?! Six minutes?! All runs?! Six minutes?!’ The kid’s just got a leadership quality to him, man.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Oklahoma at Kansas
Caleb Williams
Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

People can live in alternate realities. They can be delusional, fantastical, dead set on believing lies. But some facts can push through the noise, and some talent is just too great. If coaches are reasonable, at a certain point they have a responsibility to their players: Go with the best quarterback or stand to lose the locker room. The future is impatient. Tired of waiting, it swallows the now and takes its place.

Williams was tired of waiting. After Rattler’s second turnover against Texas, Riley put him in. On his first touch, Williams took the snap, made a cut, broke a tackle, and ran 66 yards for a score. He didn’t look back from there. Grade A pyrotechnics the rest of the day. This wasn’t a coming-out party. It was a systematic dissection of the Longhorns. He filleted them. And he gorged himself. In a little over two and half quarters of work, Williams went 16-of-25 passing for 212 yards with two touchdowns, and he carried the ball four times for another 88 yards. The numbers are great but don’t tell the whole story. It was like he took the ball and you felt anything could happen. It was like you were always seconds away from wonder.

Heading into the TCU game, people were unsure whether Williams or Rattler would start. When the PA announcer revealed Williams was the starter, the crowd reacted with the kind of rabidity usually reserved for professional wrestling. Place went bananas. All he did that night was go 18-of-23 passing for 295 yards with four touchdowns. He also ran for 66 yards and a score. Let me channel my inner Arby’s spokesman: HE HAS. THE JUICE.

Of the many highlight-reel plays he turned in that evening, one stood above the rest. With a little more than 2:30 left in the third quarter, a Horned Frogs corner came on a blitz. Williams juked him into the earth, a cut so great and a whiff so bad that ESPN play-by-play man Chris Fowler moaned, “Oh, boy,” as Williams turned the corner. He said it like he had just heard the ice cream truck, like the waiter had just appeared with the breadsticks.

It hasn’t been all hot tubs and champagne. Take the Kansas game on October 23. For the most part, it was an affront to beauty and all that is good in this world. Sloppy, uninspired football. Defense beyond confused. Offense stuck in the muck. It is the turd in the punch bowl of the Williams era, and even then he turned in two amazing plays. One came with a little more than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma clinging to a four-point lead. The Sooners faced a fourth-and-3 from the Jayhawks’ 40-yard line; Williams ran a quarterback counter, broke two tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and took it to the house. Had Mark Jones screaming, “The Magic Man!”

The other play was as unprecedented as the change from Rattler to Williams. Kansas had responded to the Williams touchdown scamper with a touchdown of its own. Now Oklahoma faced fourth-and-1 from its own 46 with about 3:30 left. Sooners running back Kennedy Brooks, the other hero of the Texas game, took the handoff and got stood up behind the line. Then Williams—inexplicably, incredibly, unthinkably, preposterously—ripped the ball out of Brooks’s hands and ran for the first down. That’s a vanilla description for something as ludicrous as this was. Again, jaws dropped. Unprecedented things will do that.

After his most recent performance—402 yards passing, six touchdowns, and no picks in a 52-21 stomping of Texas Tech—it seems silly there was ever a question as to who Riley would start after the Texas game. Williams was the master key. Things have opened up.

Williams comes with his own bonkers resumé, his own absurdities. Like Rattler, he too was the consensus no. 1 quarterback prospect in his high school class. He too was given five stars at both 247Sports and Rivals. He too was the Elite 11 MVP, and he too was invited to the All-American Bowl. He didn’t star in a Netflix show, but he did blog for Sports Illustrated. Six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. Ipso facto, he’s your boss.

Quarterback heads love Williams so much it makes them dizzy. On the October 11 episode of The Ryen Russillo Podcast, Trent Dilfer said, “He’s the one guy that can throw the ball with the horsepower off platform like Patrick Mahomes. He’s Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, these guys that can just do things that nobody can think about doing. He is in rare air with his physical giftedness.”

After the TCU game, Kirk Herbstreit said, “I’d be shocked if he’s not in New York for the Heisman, Caleb Williams, and I’m telling you—he’s going to be the face of the sport for much of this year and definitely the next two years.”

If you look at their words closely, you can see the drool.

Rattler always seemed afraid to run. He’d get happy feet, bail out of the pocket, only look to throw. Doesn’t matter how good a quarterback is at throwing on the move. In some situations, the best option is to pull the ball and pick up the first with your legs. He’d have 8 yards between him and a defender, and 5 yards between him and the first down. He just wouldn’t do it. It made him more predictable.

With Williams, you find yourself expecting the best. He has a rocket launcher attached to his person, delivers off-the-wrong-foot, climb-the-pocket, 50-plus-yard blockbusters.

Williams airs that thing out. He trusts Oklahoma’s receivers more than Rattler does, happy to take chances on 50-50 balls to Marvin Mims or Jadon Haselwood. He has some underthrows on deep balls, but he’s taking real shots and has Mims looking once again like the revelation he was last season. He’s hot ’cause he’s fly. Since Williams took over as starter, his passer rating when targeting Mims is perfect.

It’s been three and a half games and Williams already has more highlights than most quarterbacks do in a full season. It took him all of two weeks to get his name in a Heisman conversation that had previously been more mumble than anything else. Joel Klatt of Fox Sports was asked about Williams’s Heisman odds on a recent edition of The Rich Eisen Show. “It’s totally unprecedented for a guy to miss even a couple of games and win the Heisman Trophy,” Klatt said.

Unprecedented. Until it isn’t.

So what now? What next? Uncharted waters, these.

The knowns: Williams is QB1 moving forward. Oklahoma is better because of it. The Sooners remain undefeated, but their schedule gets rocky starting with Saturday’s trip to Waco to face off with 13th-ranked Baylor. The week after that, they play Iowa State at home. Then comes their regular-season finale against no. 10 Oklahoma State in Stillwater. After that, most likely, is an appearance in the Big 12 championship game.

The unknowns: Where does Rattler go? Can he bounce back? Will he transfer elsewhere or declare for the draft? To say his NFL stock has sunk is putting it mildly. Compared to where people had him at the beginning of the season, he’s in the Mariana Trench. It is genuinely sad that he’s cost himself so much money. Hard not to feel for the kid. But then there aren’t any quarterback guarantees in the 2022 draft, no guy who is clearly The Guy. Maybe Rattler gets lucky and some team takes a swing early?

And will the improved Oklahoma defense get enough stops? Will the offensive line keep getting better? Is Williams enough? Is he enough for the Sooners to run the table and return to the playoff? Is he enough to lift Oklahoma to the mountaintop?

Are these even the right questions? They are all grounded in an older reality, a BC. Williams is blazing new trails. If what has happened with him thus far lacks precedent, why should history dictate what happens next?

Something different is now possible. What else will we see for the first time?