Every Wednesday this spring, SI Sooners examines one key player’s performance from Oklahoma’s Red/White Game. Today: Quarterback Caleb Williams.
There’s no pressure on Caleb Williams to play right away.
Spencer Rattler is a star — arguably the best quarterback in college football and possibly the No. 1 overall draft pick next spring.
But what Oklahoma’s wunderkind freshman showed Lincoln Riley in the Sooners’ spring game is clear: he’s ready right now, if necessary.
Yes, Williams should be finishing his final semester of high school this spring instead of playing big-time college football. But don't forget: COVID cost him his senior year of high school football, too.
Yet Williams showed during the Red/White Game that he's capable of making the jump from high school to college. His transition, through hard work and preparation, appears almost easy.
The question becomes how much does Williams play in 2021? If the Sooners roll through their non-conference schedule, Williams figures to get backup snaps in each game. They’ll blow out some Big 12 teams, too.
Does Riley move forward on the standard premise of keeping Williams at four games or less to preserve his redshirt, like he did two years ago with Rattler? Or does he present Rattler’s understudy as often as possible with the realization that Williams wants to be in the NFL after playing three years in college?
Literally anything could happen over the next 6-36 months. But Riley and Sooner Nation can rest easy knowing Caleb Williams is ready whenever he’s called.
“I thought he was pretty decisive on the day,” Riley said after the scrimmage. “You guys hear me use that word all the time when referencing quarterbacks, but I think that's so important at that position and I thought he had one of the most decisive days that he probably had all spring out there today.
“He just kind of felt calm and in control really the whole time. Made good decisions, made some pretty good throws, got the ball out of his hands.”
Rattler started with the No. 1 offense against the No. 2 defense, so with the format of the scrimmage, Williams entered on the second series with the 2s against the first defense. He got only five series but made the most of them by generating a field goal, two touchdowns and running out the clock at the end of the game.
Williams, SI All-American’s No. 1 overall player in the 2021 recruiting class, showed his abilities on the very first snap, executing a read-option keeper around the left end for 18 yards. On the next play, Williams faked a handoff to Marcus Major and, as Perrion Winfrey took out Major, Williams kept the football again, this time on the right side for a 5-yard gain.
He zipped a quick throw to Jackson Sumlin on the left side for a 4-yard gain, then executed another read-option, this time on a handoff to Major for a first down. Williams then ran a play-action fake and threw quickly to Devin Staton on the right side for a 9-yard pickup.
Williams kept for a 3-yard gain, then handed off to Major for a short pickup. Then came Williams’ only incompletion: a play-action throw across the middle on second-and-long. The throw was a little behind Sumlin but still hit him in both hands and should have been caught. On third-and-long, Williams got pressure off the edge from Ethan Downs and checked down to Major, who picked up two yards to set up Gabe Brkic’s field goal.
After Rattler got three series and freshman Ben Harris got one, Williams was back on the field as the first half wound down.
Williams turned in his best play of the day by starting that possession with an impressive reaction and throw to Drake Stoops. Feeling pressure up the middle from Clayton Smith and LaRon Stokes, Williams bailed out, scrambling hard to his right, and slipped a perfect throw underneath to Stoops on a crossing route from the left side. Instead of a sack, Williams’ improv skills netted a first down.
Williams then delivered two impressive throws to Jadon Haselwood. On the first, he essentially flicked his wrist to zip the football from the right hashmark to the left numbers 30 yards downfield. Haselwood didn’t come up with the catch — it was pass interference on Kendall Dennis — but the accuracy and timing of the ball showed how effortless the game can be for Williams.
On the next, Haselwood showed his enormous skill set with a one-handed catch of a nuanced fade throw from Williams for a 20-yard gain. On back-to-back throws to the same receiver in the same area of the field, Williams showed both power and touch.
Two plays later, Williams delivered the only touchdown pass of the day, a perfect throw to Sumlin for a 12-yard TD. Left guard Marcus Alexander pulled to the right to pick up pressure from Marcus Stripling, giving Williams just enough time to run through his progressions and find Sumlin. Sumlin slipped unseen into the middle zone between safeties Bryson Washington and Jordan Mukes, and Williams came off his first and second read and confidently stepped into the throw for the touchdown to Sumlin in the final seconds of the first half.
Rattler opened at quarterback but Williams was up on the next series. On the second play, Williams pulled off another slick improv, this time stepping up as Noah Arinze squeezed the pocket. He hit Sumlin in stride across the middle with an off-balance throw and Sumlin picked up 17 yards. Williams’ athleticism allowed him to deliver a perfect pass despite throwing off his front foot while on the move and hitting Sumlin in the hands — a mark of a calm quarterback who doesn’t need a clean pocket to have success.
Williams zipped a quick hitch to Staton on the right side, and the velocity of the throw allowed Staton to ride Brian Darby’s block of Jaden Davis and juke Ryan Peoples for a 12-yard gain.
Williams got a brief scare on the next play when, after a handoff to Kennedy Brooks, Williams almost took a hard hit to the left knee. Easton Reeves was stumbling and dove at the handoff, but Brooks already had the ball and Reaves nearly crunched Williams’ knee. Instead, Williams raised his leg and hopped out of trouble at the last second.
Willams then hit the defense with another read-option keeper to the right side, faking a handoff to Eric Gray, pulling the football to fool Reggie Grimes and keeping around the right side for a 14-yard gain.
On the next play, Williams threw a quick dig route to Darby for a 5-yard pickup, putting the football on his target as Darby turned around. Gray then scored on a 19-yard touchdown to finish the drive.
Williams quarterbacked the two-play drive on which Mikey Henderson got thrown for a loss and caught for a safety, but then, with the score at 30-29 and the game in the balance over the final 3 minutes, 20 seconds, Williams took the Sooner offense on a game-clinching march.
On second-and-5, Williams faked a handoff to Henderson and kept the ball around the left edge. He wanted to throw it, but with tight coverage everywhere he quickly decided to keep it instead. He pump-faked to get Morris off balance, then cut up under Morris, rode a block from Jayden Knowles and scooted out of bounds for a gain of 8 and a first down.
On second-and-7, Williams executed a criss-cross fake handoff to Todd Hudson to the left, then sprinted right and dumped a quick throw to Knowles uncovered underneath. On the move, Williams hit Knowles in stride, and as Knowles cut upfield, Williams accelerated, looking for someone to block.
You can appreciate Williams’ willingness to help his ballcarrier and his eagerness to mix things up, but Riley would most likely prefer he eschew any downfield blocking and instead hang behind the play and patiently get the next call from the sideline.
Williams finished 10-of-11 passing for 99 yards with one touchdown throw. He also led the Sooners in rushing with 61 yards on six keepers.
The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Williams has a powerful, accurate arm, an instinct for the game, clearly picks up things quickly and has the kind of athletic ability that will make Riley think about using him as a running threat, maybe something between Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray.
“He’s going to throw the ball. He’s going to run,” said linebacker Caleb Kelly. “He has that ability. He’s fast for sure.”
Riley probably spent the spring feeding Williams only a little of the offense at a time — more concept and theory than actual plays from the playbook. Riley’s ability to communicate with his players is something quarterbacks thrive on. They’re already smart and know what to do, and Riley shines a light on how best to do it within the structure of the offense. That’s something Williams showed is one of his strengths.
“For the first time (being) out there and kind of in that moment, I thought he did a nice job,” Riley said. “And he's still got so many things to clean up and learn as we go forward. But he certainly has the ability to do a lot of things well and showed some of those things today.”
Williams gives Riley a multi-tool over the next few years. Riley hopes he won’t need to use that tool too often in 2021. But if he does, Williams made it obvious that he’ll be ready.