For the second time in three seasons, Sooners fans received a glimpse of the future at quarterback. This time, in the form of Caleb Williams.
Back in 2019, five-star phenom Spencer Rattler got his first taste of quarterbacking Oklahoma against FCS-opponent South Dakota. After finishing 4-for-4 with 50 yards and a touchdown that night as the third-string quarterback behind Jalen Hurts, Rattler solidified himself as a future starter and Heisman Trophy candidate.
Now, after the Sooners (2-0) carried a 45-0 lead into halftime against another FCS opponent, Western Carolina, (0-2) on Saturday night behind Rattler’s 243 first-half passing yards and five touchdowns, the freshman Williams saw his first elongated action under center.
A former five-star recruit, Williams proved he’s fit to be Rattler’s heir the same way Rattler proved he could take up Hurts’ mantle his freshman year. He completed 5-of-10 passes for 84 yards and added 60 yards on the ground, while playing just five drives as Rattler’s relief in the second half of OU’s 76-0 win over the Catamounts.
“I just love the way he played and just his energy,” said senior defensive lineman Perrion Winfrey, who recorded two tackles and 1.5 sacks. “He went out there to (lead) a couple touchdowns for us and just did what he needed to do. He’s an exciting player.”
Williams wasn’t fazed by the 83,538 fans in attendance, who haven’t packed Gaylord-Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in a full-capacity game in over 20 months. Despite failing to complete his first collegiate pass, the 6-foot-1 quarterback responded with a perfect read-option play.
He faked the handoff so well to redshirt junior Jaden Knowles that the television camera was confused. Then, Williams sprinted downfield before hitting a nifty cut and bursting up the seam for a 59-yard scramble. The run was OU’s longest from scrimmage on Saturday, and led to the first touchdown of the second half.
Later on the drive, Williams had a chance to score his second-career touchdown on a run toward the left hashmark, but tripped on WCU’s 3-yard line. Rattler joked his backup shouldn’t have fallen down, but he exuded high praise nonetheless.
“He did pretty good out there,” Rattler said. “He’s a confident guy. Went out there, was ripping the ball, going through his reads. He made a couple plays, that big run was a good run. … He played a good game.”
The stage wasn’t too bright for Williams, who also scored Oklahoma’s second touchdown of the season on a special goal-line package in last week's opener against Tulane. Even in OU’s spring game, when he was simultaneously taking high school and college classes as an early enrollee, he finished 10-of-11 passing for 99 yards with 61 rushing.
And as Williams led the offense, he didn’t have 2020 Freshman All-American receiver Marvin Mims, co-starting running backs Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray or former five-star Jadon Haselwood, who recorded his first multi-touchdown game, at his disposal. He made do with freshmen receivers Cody Jackson and Jalil Farooq, and former walk-on quarterback-turned-receiver Colt Atkinson.
While facing an FCS school that finished 1-8 last season, Williams’ talent was apparently clear compared to those around him.
“I was proud of the way Caleb came in there and played,” OU head coach Lincoln Riley said. “Not obviously the easiest situation going to sometimes in that you don’t have the full offense at your disposal. … I thought he handled it well. (He) did a lot of good things.”
As No. 4 OU vies for a potential eighth national championship this season, Williams’ additional playing time will likely be limited. As Rattler leads the offense and balances his captain status with No. 1 draft pick potential come April, perhaps he can be the role model to Williams, like Hurts was to him, and Williams can guide the Sooners into a new era next fall.
Although Williams played just 24 snaps on Saturday night, he proved why he was named the Elite 11 Finals MVP in 2020 as a recruit, like Rattler, who earned the honor at the top quarterback competition in 2018.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Haselwood said of Williams’ performance. “He’s a talented dude, man. He’s actually like a freak. So he’s going to be a good player for OU when it’s his turn.”