As Oklahoma’s coaching staff has upgraded the roster talent, more and more true freshmen have made an immediate impact as first-year players.
Going back to his first season as head coach, Lincoln Riley has shown over and over that he’s not averse to playing true freshmen. If an 18-year-old can help, Riley will give him a shot.
Look no further than 2020, when nine first-year players made an impact: rookie Marvin Mims emerged as the Sooners’ best wide receiver. Anton Harrison was a regular at left tackle. Andrew Raym got plenty of time at guard. Mikey Henderson became a surprise go-to guy at H-back. Seth McGowan emerged as a lethal weapon at running back. Those guys, along with D.J. Graham, Reggie Grimes, Brynden Walker and Shane Whitter, all got into at least eight games and all showed they could be reliable players in their first season.
There seven true freshmen who made a significant impact in 2019: Jaden Davis, Theo Wease, Jadon Haselwood, Trejan Bridges, David Ugwoegbu, Austin Stogner and Marcus Stripling all played extensively as freshmen that season, and most made an impression as rotational players on either offense or defense.
Seven freshmen got ample snaps in 2018, though many were in reserve or special teams roles: Brendan Radley-Hiles, Ronnie Perkins, Pat Fields, T.J. Pledger, Delarrin Turner-Yell, DaShaun White and Brayden Willis.
And that was up from the six true freshmen who logged substantial snaps in 2017: Tre Brown, Grant Calcaterra, CeeDee Lamb, Kenneth Murray, Trey Sermon and Tre Norwood.
Getting a player some playing time and keeping him in redshirt is possible now thanks to the 2018 rule change that allowed players to play four games and still have four years of eligibility.
But the way Riley and his coaches have been recruiting lately, there are more and more rookies who don’t need that redshirt cushion and are ready to contribute right away.
So which players will it be in 2021? Rated on a per-player basis, this is easily Riley’s highest-rated class. The raw numbers (only 15 true freshmen) might not portend another huge contribution from those newcomers — but the raw talent this class possesses may force Riley and his staff to continue the upward trend of playing more freshmen than the year before.
Here are the five freshmen most likely to make an impact in 2021 (all are early enrollees):
Bowman is a two-way player who will make plays on offense and defense but really could give the Sooners a shot in the arm on special teams. He’ll get a chance at kickoffs with Tre Brown graduating, and he could take over punts and allow Marvin Mims to focus solely on offense. Alex Grinch wants the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Bowman as a nickel back, but Lincoln Riley, who said Bowman might be as dynamic a player as there is in the country in the 2021 class, wants to get the ball in his hands out of the slot. The receiver position is already stacked, yes, but there’s no denying Bowman is already as explosive as anyone OU has there. And Bowman can also affect the game on jet sweeps, as a runner or receiver out of the backfield, or possibly even from a wildcat quarterback role. His versatility is endless.
With Brown graduating at corner, the Sooners have an immediate opening. Jaden Davis and D.J. Graham figure to get the first look, but Davis has had ample opportunity the last two years before losing the starting job to Woodi Washington last season. Graham emerged late but still needs more big-game experience. The job won’t be just given to either guy — not with someone of McCutchin’s ability coming in. McCutchin is 6-foot-1 and with Bennie Wylie’s weight training regimen will be close to 190 pounds by the time the season starts. Many of Oklahoma’s best high school corners through the years ended up playing safety at OU. McCutchin figures to be a corner from Day 1.
It seems the slot receiver position is getting really crowded. Still, OU’s outside receiver group has way more bodies. The 5-11, 180-pound Williams is versatile enough to do both, but his real skills are inside. Drake Stoops started there in 2020, although Riley also allows prototypical outside receivers like CeeDee Lamb to exploit mismatches from the slot. It’s Year 3 for Theo Wease, Trejan Bridges and Jadon Haselwood, so playing time should be hard to come by for the new guys. But Williams has a unique skill set and will find his way onto the field.
The game is just so physical, it’s usually hard for any freshman who plays at the line of scrimmage to deliver a lot of snaps. But Smith has the skill set to do some of what Ronnie Perkins did as a true freshman: get to the quarterback. According to the 247 Sports Composite ratings, Smith is the 32nd-best prospect Oklahoma has signed in the modern era. Perkins ranks 69th on that list. So physically, the 6-4, 220-pound Smith is already there. Now it’s just a matter of mental training and emotional growth.
It might be hard to find anyone in the 2021 class — nationally, not just at Oklahoma — who enjoys playing football more than Stutsman. He probably won't supplant DaShaun White or Brian Asamoah as a starter at inside linebacker, but his non-stop motor and infectious attitude will get him early snaps in a backup role. He'll play a lot because, frankly, he's the future at the position, and the future is now. As a true freshman, he’s the ideal candidate to block a punt or save a garbage-time touchdown because of the fanatical effort with which he plays on every snap. That will get him noticed in training camp, and it will get him playing time come fall.