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What is Lincoln Riley's Endgame With His Muted Praise for Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams?

When it comes to being effusive with postgame comments for his freshman quarterback, the Sooners' coach has been measured and even reluctant to give too much credit.

If you follow the Oklahoma Sooners, you’re probably wondering why coach Lincoln Riley has seemed hesitant to heap praise on his new quarterback.

Whether Caleb Williams was pulling the Sooners out of the fire against Texas or saving their bacon at Kansas, Riley’s comments about his freshman QB have been measured, weighted towards the negative over the positive, or even deflected to teammates.

ANALYSIS

“A little unsettled the first half,” Riley said in the postgame interview minutes after the Sooners hung on to a 35-23 victory over KU. “Didn’t play great the first half. Was much better in the second half.”

Asked if he’d ever seen anyone make a play like Williams did — when he reached in and pulled the ball away from teammate Kennedy Brooks to save a fourth-down run — Riley gave credit instead to Brooks.

“Really smart player in Kennedy Brooks making a smart play; Caleb right there,” Riley said. “I mean, we made big plays when we needed ‘em.”

That postgame interview even elicited a Twitter post from former Sooner All-American Tony Casillas, among others.

After Williams’ spectacular effort against Texas, when he replaced Spencer Rattler and popped a 66-yard touchdown run and threw two touchdown passes to lead an epic OU comeback, Riley wasn’t exactly effusive with praise for Williams.

“He did good,” Riley said. “He saw some things very well, made some plays. He did a really good job outside the pocket. He also missed a couple really, really easy things that all of us, regardless of who’s playing quarterback, have got to do better, and I’ve got to coach better.”

In Dallas, Riley continued that Williams “managed it pretty well” but “missed some really easy things that we've got to get better at.”

Riley talked after last week’s TCU game about the offensive line “really keeping the pocket clean for him the majority of the night” and how that allowed the running game to get going, which helps the passing game.

“Caleb did a good job. Yes, he did a good job,” Riley said. “And you do like to see that out of a young guy. But a lot of that credit goes to that offensive line.

“I thought he did a good job. Missed a few things here and there that he'll continue to learn on and grow from.”

Williams’ fourth-quarter heroics at KU are the talk of college football this week. As ridiculous as it might sound for a true freshman to insert himself into the Heisman conversation at the midway point of the season, Williams yanking the football away from Brooks on fourth down for a season-saving 5-yard gain is being regarded as a prototype “Heisman moment” that could resonate with voters a month from now. The headiness and awareness it takes to even consider doing that falls far outside the normal realm of a quarterback’s duties.

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Afterwards, I asked Riley for his assessment of Williams’ day — his slow start, his first career interception, his 40-yard touchdown run, and his mind-bending, game-saving reach-in.

“He didn’t play very good in the first half,” Riley said. “I thought more than anything there was a little bit of frustration. We had low possessions and weren’t playing well, especially the interception. We had a back standing wide open in the flat. He has to be a little bit more composed there. He handled the second half well. He understood what we were doing. He made some important plays. I thought he was pretty calm in the second half.”

For those keeping score, for a simple postgame assessment, that’s 52 words in the “negative” ledger, and 27 in the “positive” ledger.

Whether it’s sports talk radio callers or Twitter users or Facebook posters, Sooner Nation has taken notice, as fans have been quick to voice their complaints about Riley’s complaints.

So what gives?

First of all, Riley doesn’t hate Caleb Williams. It’s childish to even think that’s an option.

The reality of this unusual situation is twofold:

One, Riley approaches everything with a measured intelligence and a game plan. His actions, his answers, his very words are calculated to produce a precise outcome. Riley’s playing 3D chess to everyone else’s checkers.

Two, he knows Caleb Williams better than any fan or former player. He knows what motivates his young quarterback. He knows what tone will get the most out of him, what answer will keep him grounded and remind him to not get too full of himself.

To suggest that Riley still prefers Rattler and doesn’t personally like Williams is absurd. To say Riley is being unfair is just being obtuse.

Sure, it would be nice if Riley simply acknowledged the impossible greatness that we’ve all seen these last three Saturdays. It would validate our own feelings.

It’s as though we’re leaving the big top, blown away by the derring-do of the trapeze act, and here comes the ringmaster telling us they could have done better, that they “missed a few easy things.”

The obvious bottom line is that whatever Riley is saying — in the media or behind closed doors — is working perfectly.

And for three straight weeks now, Williams is making sure it does.