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Talented Oklahoma freshmen trio already impressing OU coaching staff

It's very early, and some of them still want to go to prom, but the future is bright for Jamar Cain's new edge rushers

Oklahoma assistant coach Jamar Cain was preparing for another spring practice the other day when one of his talented, inquisitive freshmen asked him a question he simply wasn’t prepared for.

“Hey coach,” Ethan Downs said, “can I go to prom?”

Cain, now beginning his second year at OU — and intently focused on his first spring — said he was caught completely off guard.

“I’m looking at him like, ‘Huh?’

“I have to realize like, ‘Oh, they should still be in high school,’ ” Cain said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, go to prom. Don’t worry, you can take that Friday off. Go to prom, get your corsage, have a great, great time.’ ”

Ethan Downs

Ethan Downs

Downs is one of 10 early enrollees participating in spring football practice — and also maybe wondering what size tux they might need. Three of those 10 are being coached by Cain this year, including Downs, from nearby Weatherford, OK.

“He’s still a college kid now,” Cain said, “but mentally, they’re still high school kids trying to learn the defense. And then I’m on them. It’s just all new for them. But it’s fun, man.”

Cain said this year’s freshman class is ahead of where most incoming freshmen might be when they arrive on campus.

“Because they obviously are here now and they’re learning the defense,” Cain said, “and the NCAA’s upped the hours where we can actually spend some time with the kids. Between film time and walk-through time — and we’re in Year Three of this defense. Now the older guys know the ins and outs, so they’re helping coach the kids up.

“While I may be watching a play, I can hear the conversation behind me going on about the defense and it’s a great conversation; it’s not a guy coaching a guy up the wrong way. He’s actually telling him what to do and how it goes. Then I actually have to do a better job of reminding myself that these guys are still in high school. They’re still high school kids.”

Cain might have had the biggest impact of any assistant coach last year as Nik Bonitto and Isaiah Thomas emerged out of relative obscurity into All-Big 12 and even All-America talent. Those guys are back, and now Cain is able focus this spring on the next generation.

The 6-foot-4, 248-pound Downs has a non-stop motor and a burning love for the Sooners. The 6-4, 228-pound Clayton Smith is athletically talented enough to be one of the Sooners’ most dynamic players at that position in recent years. And 6-4, 247-pound Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge — often listed as 6-7 during his recruitment — seems to have unlimited potential.

Rawlins-Kibonge — NRK, for short — is from Portland, OR (his high school coach is NBA star Damien Lillard’s brother), and Cain got in early on NRK’s recruitment when he was at Arizona State, then stayed on him after Lincoln Riley hired Cain at OU last winter.

“(OU defensive coordinator Alex) Grinch and I were on the same page when I first got here,” Cain said Monday during a video press conference. “ … We wanted basketball players, long, athletic basketball players. And Nate checked several boxes for us.”

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He recalled literally the first time he laid eyes on Rawlins-Kibonge.

“I was at his high school, and you see this kid walk down the hall and I’m like, ‘Oh my word, who is this?’ Cain said. “He just kept getting bigger and bigger, the closer he got to me, and I was I was smitten by it. I just fell in love right away.”

NRK came up as a basketball player — he was actually committed to play basketball at Washington State — and played football for just one season, his junior year (Oregon didn’t play during the pandemic last fall). But Cain said that lack of experience can actually be turned into an asset.

Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge

Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge

“He was a blank slate,” Cain said. “And a lot of these kids come in with different different techniques and everything they learned from high school and we got to break it all down and try to teach them our new techniques. But Nate was such a blank slate, even in the weight room with with Bennie (Wylie) and those guys, he's just so raw, so young, and I'm confident in my coaching ability to be able to get him over that hump.

“There's a lot of advantages for his lack of playing ability right now because everything is new to him. So everything I'm telling him to do, he's only heard it from one way, and that's being me.”

Recruiting Rawlins-Kibonge was a completely different process than recruiting Downs locally, and that was completely different than recruiting Smith out of Queen City, TX.

“Ethan, you know, with him being a local kid ... grew up a Sooner, you know? And that relationship was — I won't say it was easy, but it was ‘easy’ because he was, no matter what, Ethan was coming here. He grew up a Sooner. Just the other day in practice, he's like, ‘Coach, I'm having so much fun,’ like this is a this is a dream for him. ‘Alright well let's make some plays.’ But that relationship just grew over over time, and that one was a little bit easier because no matter what, Ethan, eats (and) sleeps Sooner football. So Ethan was going to be a Sooner, no matter what.”

Landing Smith was a little more complex, Cain said.

Clayton Smith

Clayton Smith

“I think Clayton was a little bit different because he was the No. 1 outside ‘backer in the state of Texas last year,” Cain said. “And we have Texas and A&M and all those SEC schools coming after him. We really had to foster that relationship. And I've recruited that area before, coach Grinch recruited that area before, Texarkana, so coach Grinch kind of already had the relationship with with him.

“And I just had to build trust with him, like, ‘Hey, listen dude, you're gonna come here’ — and the success with Nik Bonitto actually helped that out more than people realize. Because a lot of people see Nik's success and they’re like, ‘OK, I can come in there and be the next Nik. I could be that’ — because a lot of schools sell that guy who's on to the next level, or has success. They sell that guy (to recruits). So now we have a guy like Nik Bonitto, just to sell that to Clayton.

“And Clayton is a long, athletic kid. I don't want to say he's gonna surprise people, but once he learns how to how to play within our defense, it's gonna be fun. But his relationship was a little bit different, and I think once he came out here and saw it, he just fell in love with it. He came out here the year before I got here, to our one of our Champ U barbecues, and he saw it and he fell in love with it.”

Three newcomers, three similar body types, three different stories. For Cain, having them on campus early, before things get too serious in preseason training camp, is when the fun begins.

“I’m definitely happy with all three of those freshmen,” Cain said. “It’s funny … before you start practicing, a kid comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, can I go to prom?’ And I’m like, ‘What? Prom?’ So it’s been fun.”