If you think you’ve spotted a pattern in how Lincoln Riley finds quarterbacks, don’t kid yourself.
Riley himself still isn’t 100 percent sure how this thing works.
“I think it's just been a kind of a constant cat-and-mouse game of, you know, adapting to the trends — specifically at that position — adapting to the rules as they've changed.”
Oklahoma’s current “trend” is to sign the best high school quarterback prospect in the country every other year. Right? That’s how it unfolded with Spencer Rattler in the 2019 class and Caleb Williams in the 2021 class — and how it may yet unfold with Malachi Nelson in the 2023 class.
The strategy there is to not stockpile too many elite QBs in consecutive classes. The advent of the transfer portal and the new rule for immediate eligibility for all first-time transfers opens avenues for guys who don’t win the starting job in their first or second year to bail out. Georgia, with Jake Fromm winning the job as a true freshman in 2017 and eventually pushing 2018 freshman Justin Fields to Ohio State via the portal is just the most recent and most visible example.
So having a year in between your top QB recruits allows one guy to 1) grow into the role, 2) be The Man for a year, and 3) mentor the next star quarterback before heading off to the NFL.
It looks like a complex equation that Riley has somehow deciphered.
But the reality is that Riley is sort of making this up as he goes.
“You know you're gonna need an impact player here to play the way that we want to play offensively, and carry our expectations in that quarterback room,” Riley said, “just, what's your best route to be able to get somebody like that?
“There's some years for us that, you know, there's a high school quarterback out there that we think is phenomenal and is absolutely the right guy for us — and if that happens, we tend to zero in. And if we don't think that's the case, then obviously there's other routes.
“Or, if we need somebody to be ready a little bit quicker, like a few years ago when we took Jalen (Hurts from Alabama through the portal), then we've got those options as well.”
Riley once made his living off transfer quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield showed up from Texas Tech before Riley even got to Norman. Kyler Murray called Riley after things went sour at Texas A&M. Hurts watched their Heisman seasons from Tuscaloosa and decided he wanted to be a part of it.
Oklahoma does have a transfer QB in Penn State's Micah Bowens, but now it seems Riley is invested in taking the high school QB route.
For the moment.
“The way it's evolving and changing and rules changing year to year, I don't know that you can just put down a blanket statement, or like a blanket plan, and just let it go,” Riley said. “I just think you got to keep evaluating every year — where the guys are that are the difference makers and what's the best way to add them here to our program.
“There's been a little bit of a pattern, I get that, over the last few years. But I don't know that that necessarily means that that'll always continue. I think it's gonna continue to change and we've got to be ready to continue to adapt.”