NORMAN — Oklahoma’s 2021 freshman class showed up and showed out on Saturday during the Sooners’ annual Red/White Game.
Quarterback Caleb Williams was terrific — as good as advertised, maybe somehow even better — and completed 10-of-11 passes. Jordan Mukes led the team with six tackles. Latrell McCutchin also started against the No. 1 offense next to Mukes. From Ethan Downs to Clayton Smith to Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge to Cody Jackson to walk-on quarterback Ben Harris, everyone had their name called.
But two newcomers elevated themselves beyond just playing time, beyond just making plays with the starters.
On offense, Mario Williams led OU with five receptions, posted a team-high 84 receiving yards, and paced all Sooners in crowd roars. And on defense and special teams, Billy Bowman popped a 45-yard kickoff return — in a scrimmage where live tackling was not allowed on special teams — and broke up a pass on the goal line to save a touchdown.
Williams, 5-foot-9 and 181 pounds from Tampa, showed explosiveness, elusiveness, raw speed, strength, hands and ability to get off the line. He also lost a fumble on an end around. His reception on a deep post from Spencer Rattler not only saved a certain interception by D.J. Graham, but it resulted in a 50-yard gain.
“He did some good things. Fumbled the reverse,” Lincoln Riley said. “Other than that, he made a great play, very competitive play down the field and honestly, D.J. Graham made a great play on, too. It was pretty impressive, honestly, by both those guys. I thought he did some nice things. He's had a pretty good spring. The majority of days have been productive days and he's certainly got some burst and some ability. I think everybody can see that. I'm excited what he can do and I think he's certainly going to have a chance to be a contributor for us.”
Bowman, from Denton, TX, is similarly built (5-10, 182) and similarly explosive. His kickoff return started up the middle and he burst to the left without being touched. He made one slick move and got to the sideline at midfield before he was even touched. And his breakup of Rattler’s goal-line throw to Marvin Mims was perfect coverage — he used good technique at the snap, then shadowed Mims’ every step — and his explosion to the ball came with sudden ferocity.
“I don’t want to put too much on him,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “But, put him a nickel role, he’s really taken off. He has speed, he has quickness, he has ball skills. He’s a good football player. And from a mental aptitude standpoint, he’s done a tremendous job. And maybe one of those guys, midway through spring, really made a commitment to technique.
“ ‘The things I got away with maybe in high school, I’m not going to get away with.’ Some guys fight that. Some guys will spend a year in a program fighting that. Those are the disappointing ones. And we had some guys this last fall, quite frankly, kind of in that mode, fight the transition to this level. Excited to have that out of him, and I think that’s a good role for him, and I think he’s only going to get better.”
And Grinch loves Mario Williams’ ability — he just doesn’t love having to defend it.
“We’re real fortunate here to have several guys that, you can see the respect factor as far as defensive backs,” Grinch said. “We’ll talk about techniques and stuff like that, and they’ll make sure to use whatever technique they think is applicable at that moment to defend that individual that they’re in front of. …. We’re still working through that a little bit.
“But he’s one of those guys, they know where they’re lined up at. And there’s a respect factor in terms of a quickness standpoint, a speed standpoint. He’s a highlight waiting to happen — which will be fun in the fall, not so fun for us in spring ball and fall camp. We turn into fans, but not for several months.”