Spencer Rattler’s first season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback was preceded by six months of Zoom calls.
Which sort of explains Rattler’s bumpy start to 2020.
Now project the growth that Rattler showed from September through December last season onto a more typical offseason — one that includes a full 15 spring practices — and imagine the progress.
“I expect him to improve a lot, no doubt about it,” coach Lincoln Riley said Thursday. “There’s so many areas for him to grow.”
Oklahoma starts spring practice on Monday, and although quarterback may be the only job where the competition is closed, it's a big opportunity for Rattler to really make meaningful strides as a football player, as a team leader, and as a quarterback.
Having spring ball last year would have helped Rattler because, according to Riley, he was still trying to win the job. As forgone a conclusion as it may have seemed, especially given how it all played out, this time last year Tanner Mordecai wasn’t Rattler’s backup yet. So Rattler being made to approach it like a true competition would have made him better.
Now? With Mordecai at SMU and Chandler Morris at TCU? This train is being driven by Rattler.
Caleb Williams has prodigious physical skills, a precocious and powerful leadership style and the kind of take-it-from-me attitude that every coach wants in a quarterback. But he is a true freshman. He’s the kind of player you build a program around for three or four years, but he’s not going to send Rattler to the bench after Rattler did what he did in 2020.
But Williams will do something Mordecai was able to do once last year, in the fires of the Red River Rivalry: he’ll push Rattler to be better. Should Rattler come at 2021 like he has nothing to worry about, should he not exhibit growth, Riley has shown he isn’t afraid to mix things up and give someone else a chance. And freshman or not, Williams is that good.
And it would stand to reason that the rest of the quarterbacks in camp this spring feel the same way. Penn State obviously though highly of Micah Bowens, and Bowens has bet on himself in transferring to Oklahoma. Even the walk-ons have credentials: former walk-on Tanner Schafer is now entering his sixth year in Norman. Preferred walk-on freshman Ben Harris won four state championships and went 52-2 at Carl Albert. Riley’s also added Ralph Rucker, a preferred walk-on from Rucker, TX, who joins the team in the summer.
But so far, Riley said, Rattler has had a great offseason — the kind that endears him to his teammates.
“We really challenged him physically to make some of the gains that he’s capable of making and needs to make,” Riley said. “That comes now from a guy who has been through an offseason.
“There’s so many guys when they get here during an offseason, it becomes about survival and just kind of making it. A lot of times you see guys as they go further on in their careers, the offseason goals become a little more intentional. This is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish. Coach (Bennie) Wylie says it all the time: these guys have to put in the extra time. And if you have big goals, the extra is not extra. He says that all the time. It’s part of what you should do.
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“For a lot of guys on our roster, Spencer included, this offseason and the chance to have an offseason and the chance to build and really attack some of the areas physically where they have a lot of room to grow, is very important,” Riley said. “I think some of that growth is starting to happen. That’s exciting. Certainly that’s been an area where we’ve challenged Spencer and he’s really started to push and challenge himself maybe more than he has in the past.”
Rattler played in three games as a true freshman in 2019. After winning the job as a redshirt freshman last season, he completed 67.5 percent off his passes for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Rattler threw game-ending picks in losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, and he had two early turnovers that got him benched against Texas.
From the second half of the Texas game through the Cotton Bowl victory over Florida, Rattler took care of the football and looked like a much more confident quarterback.
Riley can’t wait to see what Rattler can do with a full spring practice in his pocket.
“Certainly there are a lot of things on the field to continue to work with,” Riley said. “There’s going to be new skill sets at the skill positions. There’s going to be new offensive linemen to communicate with, new running backs. It’s the same offense, but it will continue to evolve and there will be a lot of differences that he will have to continue to get comfortable with.
“I’m excited for him because I think there’s so much potential growth and I’m excited to attack it together.”