Before Williams arrived at Oklahoma, which wasn’t so long ago, and before Oklahoma put the clamp on family interviews, his father, Carl, a D.C.-area real estate developer, sounded understated when he told Sports Illustrated: “He can make Aaron Rodgers-like throws, Patrick Mahomes-like throws. He runs probably more like Adrian Peterson than any particular quarterback. And we wanted him to have the intelligence of Tom Brady.”
That does sound above average, and then last Saturday after the TCU game, Oklahoma wide receiver Jadon Haselwood told reporters this: “He’s a great leader for, like, being a freshman. I don’t think he ever feels pressure. He’s always in a good mood. Even last week [during his backup, then starring, role against Texas] he felt no pressure, like no fear, and you can tell by the way he played. Just a great kid. He can sling it. He can run. He can do whatever he needs to do to get the ball downfield.”
At one point Haselwood said, “I mean, nobody can tackle him” — and then started a burst of laughter.
It’s all compelling even if maybe not so much for Kansas, the next team watching film of Williams, and maybe if not quite as compelling to people as the situation preceding it. How in the world does one team have a quarterback billed as a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, then another quarterback who spells that first one in the year’s sixth game and becomes a midseason Heisman Trophy candidate? “It’s crazy, right?” ESPN analyst Trevor Matich said on the air Wednesday night. “Except it’s not.”
It all means even further that Lincoln Riley — a 38-year-old with a photographic memory, a former sophomore defensive end and then junior and senior quarterback at Muleshoe High in Texas, home of the Mules — rules our land.
Not only has this still-young man served only four-plus seasons as Oklahoma coach yet somehow tutored three of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but also, as a byproduct, Riley has come to oversee the latest in a long national tradition: a “quarterback controversy,” which seldom is really a controversy but often a puzzle requiring high-level diplomacy.
First, Riley had Spencer Rattler, the dual-threat quarterback from Phoenix who committed to Oklahoma on June 27, 2017, as he ascended to No. 1 on the Rivals Class of 2019 dual-threat chart. Then Riley had Williams, the dual-threat quarterback from 200-year-old Gonzaga College High in Washington who committed to Oklahoma on July 4, 2020, as he ascended to No. 1 on the Rivals Class of 2021 dual-threat chart.
Then Riley had Rattler playing three games in 2019, behind current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, and then all 11 games in 2020, when Rattler had a passer rating of 172.6, which is good (11th nationally) even if no one knows how it’s deduced. Then he had Rattler running onto some rocks in 2021 and some Oklahoma fans breaching politeness by chanting for Williams and Williams replacing Rattler on Oct. 9 in Dallas as a 28-7 Oklahoma deficit against Texas became a 55-48 Oklahoma win over Texas.
It wasn’t just that but that Oklahomans like their yards per play in big gulps. In Riley’s first three seasons, Oklahoma gobbled 8.3, 8.7 and 8.0 yards per play, finishing nationally at No. 1, No. 1 and No. 1. This season, the Sooners mysteriously crept to 5.7 against Tulane, 5.9 against Nebraska, an unthinkable 4.9 against West Virginia and a pretty-good 6.5 against Kansas State before Williams stepped in and they went to 8.2 against Texas and 9.1 against TCU.
Along the way, Riley catapulted to the apex of American society: the privilege of having a crafty student newspaper secretly observe practice from a public building to report who got more snaps (Williams).
He has walked his coveted tightrope with some aplomb, as on Monday when he fielded a question about how he decides during a game when the backup (last week, Rattler) will spell the starter (last week, Williams).
“It’s a good question,” he began, always a clever way to begin. “I think there’s a lot of — got different variables there. Obviously the game being in control is the first thing, and then after that, who’s the starter? What does he need? Who’s the backup? What does he need? So, yeah, there’s probably a lot that goes into it. Would it be different, potentially, now? Possibly, depending on the situation, with the guy that’s the starter right now that’s a little more inexperienced and a guy that currently is our number two that is very experienced. So could be different, but, yeah, I think through the years, you’ve just got to look at the whole picture. There’s only so much to it, but obviously you love to get multiple guys a chance to play at any point.”
After Saturday’s 52-31 win over TCU in which Williams completed 18 of 23 passes and looked so rattled by his first start that he began 10 for 10, Riley started the hard work of diplomacy — and not just in effusing about how they get along and help the team.
To the question of how, wow, that offense did seem to move more: “You know, I think, for us, I think the big part of it is just the running game just continuing to improve.”
That was very adept.
And then: “We’re starting to play more 11-man football on offense. Not all the time — listen, we’re a long ways from perfect, trust me, but we’re starting to do that. And when you do that, the big [plays] come.”
Remember, it takes 11.
And as for Williams’s 10-for-10 decisiveness, well: “I thought he had a clear mind and saw it well. And, you know, the line being where it needed to be …”
The line! Don’t forget the line! (And if you remember the line, maybe you will forget the situation …)
He did say of Williams: “That’s always one of the big things for us. [For] quarterbacks, one of the number-one things we hang our hat on is being decisive. We always tell our guys that, you know, if you’re decisive, even sometimes if you’re wrong, as long as you’re decisive it can still work. You can make the right decision a lot of times, but if you’re indecisive it can still not work with the speed of this game. So that’s something we’ve tried to hang our hat on, and I think overall Caleb did a good job of that.”
He’s something to see, and at this moment in this season, that’s something to navigate.