While the Oklahoma Sooners celebrated a season-ending win over the Oregon Ducks in the Alamo Bowl, freshman quarterback Caleb Williams’ comments about his future tempered some of the enthusiasm around the program.
Williams shined OU’s 47-32 win, completing 21-of-27 pass attempts for three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran the ball seven times for 36 yards and avoided some of the rookie mistakes we’ve seen during his first year in Norman. It was the kind of performance that helped paint a rosy picture of the Sooners’ future behind center if he sticks around.
It was easy to do because it was the right thing to do! I appreciate all of you guys accepting me. I promise you this is the place to be. @CoachVenables and @Coach_Leb will keep this thing rollin! Keep the hat for an NIL deal!! https://t.co/VAE9lEYaG2— Bob Stoops (@CoachBobStoops) December 30, 2021
While interim coach Bob Stoops and new head coach Brent Venables threw some not-so-subtle recruiting pitches his way, Williams made it clear after the game that is no sure thing. I won’t pretend to know Williams or that I have any inside information on what he will do, but let’s try to think through the implications of his decision.
What does Williams want?
Maybe more NIL money and a Heisman Trophy. Let’s just assume, though, that a future in the NFL is ultimately driving Williams’ decision. He picked OU so he could be schooled by the coach who tutored three NFL starting QBs in Jalen Hurts and top overall draft picks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
Ironically, you could make a good case that Williams showed the most growth this season after Lincoln Riley left for USC. Even so, Riley’s departure is what has put Williams’ future at OU in doubt.
So Williams is going to USC?
Eh, signs point to “no.” Riley is facing a rebuild situation with the Trojans that doesn’t seem to fit with NFL aspirations. Playing behind a shoddy offensive line, for instance, won’t put Williams in position to showcase his talents.
Keep in mind that Riley’s reputation with NFL personnel departments may take a hit after the last two years, too. After three seasons under Riley, Spencer Rattler never really built on his prodigious talent. Meanwhile, Riley struggled in the second half of the season to put together an offense tailored to Williams’ strengths.
OK, what would the argument for staying at OU sound like?
First, Venables hired one of the best up-and-coming offensive tacticians in the country in Jeff Lebby. In his two seasons as Ole Miss offensive coordinator, the Rebels ranked 14th and 10th in Offensive SP+. In his one season as the offensive coordinator at Central Florida in 2019, the Knights ranked 14th. As quarterbacks coach at Ole Miss, Lebby oversaw the development of Matt Corral into one of the top prospects at the position in the upcoming NFL draft.
Second, Williams knows the offensive personnel at OU. He already has relationships with receivers like Mario Williams and Marvin Mims. Whatever the shortcomings of OU’s offensive line may have been this year, Williams probably understands what that unit could look like in the near term. Having that certainty eliminates some of the risk involved in switching programs.
Finally, OU has the makings of a strong squad in the coming seasons. The coaching change adds a variable, obviously, but the Sooners will likely enter Big 12 play in ‘22 as the favorites to win the conference. Venables is also inheriting enough young talent to think OU will field a competitive team when it presumably moves to the SEC in 2023.
There have to be some downsides to staying at OU, right?
Indeed. OU may have hired a sought-after offensive coordinator, but Venables is a defensive guy to the core. What will that mean for the identity of the program going forward? The Sooners won’t be a program built around star power at QB, which seemed to be the case with Riley at the helm. That doesn’t mean OU can’t continue to pump out great QBs, just that the vibe is about to change.
Second, Lebby has a short track record of QB development. On top of that, he has worked under other respected offensive coordinators and QB coaches in Lane Kiffin and Josh Heupel, which raises fair questions about who deserves credit for their successes on offense.
Where could Williams go?
I don’t know, but we should start by recognizing that despite Williams’ talent, plenty of programs around the country won’t pursue him in light of their QB situations. Some coaches also may not want to upset the dynamics in their locker rooms and on the recruiting trail.
Take Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, for example. Junior Cade McNamara has started all season, and Harbaugh has worked in touted freshman J.J. McCarthy during the year. Coach Khaki Pants has the NFL pedigree, but he may not want to upset the balance on his roster. Not to mention, Williams may not want to compete with two incumbents for playing time.
Come on, give us one name.
Fine – I’d keep an eye on Penn State. Coach James Franklin has a reputation as a dynamic recruiter, and State College is relatively close to Williams’ home base in the Washington, D.C. area. PSU isn’t known for prolific offenses, but the Nittany Lions do have a respected offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich.
So how screwed is OU if Williams leaves?
Quit being so dramatic. Williams is a fantastic prospect, but the Sooners will have plenty of options in the transfer portal if he takes those talents elsewhere. Bear in mind that other players may hop in the portal once they see OU has an opening at QB.
The bigger concern may be the secondary effects if Williams transfers. Other offensive stars such as Mims may decide to look elsewhere as well. But let’s cross that bridge later.
Whatever happens, OU will be fine.