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How Spencer Rattler fall so far, so fast - it's complicated (so is what's next)

Credit: Oklahoma athletics

Just barely a month ago, Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler was getting the keys to two brand new cars. The preseason Heisman betting favorite has now reached rock bottom, benched for true freshman phenom Caleb Williams. It’s a fall from grace, due to football reasons, as fast as any we have seen in college football. What got us to this point? It’s a combination of outsized expectations, arrogance, money and a potentially generational quarterback talent in Williams.

Rattler was a very good high school quarterback prospect. The Phoenix native was ranked as the top quarterback and ninth best player overall in the 2019 recruiting class by 247 Sports. The offer sheet was extensive. Beyond just Oklahoma, Alabama, Notre Dame, Texas (to name) all pursued Rattler. Here is the scouting report former 247 Sports’ director of scouting Barton Simmons wrote about Rattler.

“Slightly built prospect with narrow shoulders. Limited physical upside. Natural passer with a quick release. Does not need to load up to generate velocity. Throws with more zip than power. Sharp all over the field. Accurate in ball placement. Disassociates his upper and lower half to make off-platform, unconventional throws with ease. Fluid athlete with the ability to extend plays. Has some natural confidence and magnetism as a leader. Can play too loose at times which ticks his interception numbers up some. Body may limit durability. The most natural thrower in the 2019 class. Looks like a future second- or third-round NFL Draft pick and could be a transcendent college quarterback.”

It checks out on the film. Watch Rattler’s high school tape and you see a player who delivers the ball as naturally as any quarterback you’ve ever seen. He backed that up when he won MVP at the 2018 Elite 11 competition, the nation’s pre-eminent showcase for high school quarterbacks. But, concerns were there. “Limited physical upside” is not a phrase often associated with top-five quarterback recruits. At 6’1, and weighing in at around 190lbs as a high school junior, those questions were valid. The most important thing to note is the last sentence. Barton Simmons had him as a second or third round draft pick, not the franchise saver many have billed him as over the last few years.

His mind was made up on Oklahoma pretty early on, though. Rattler gave Lincoln Riley his verbal pledge on June 27, 2017, a full two years before the start of Fall camp of his freshman season in 2019. Quarterbacks have started committing earlier and earlier (though that has not held true for the class of 2023, the class of quarterbacks most impacted by NCAA recruiting restrictions during the pandemic), but Rattler’s recruitment was interesting if only for its simplicity. By all accounts, he was dead set on becoming a Sooner, as his only other campus visit, according to 247 Sports, was a camp at Texas A&M early in his high school career.

Who can blame him? Lincoln Riley arrived in Norman after the 2014 season as offensive coordinator from East Carolina and instantly changed the fortunes of an Oklahoma program that was treading water under then-head coach Bob Stoops. Riley instantly made Oklahoma’s attack maybe the nation’s best, as he turned Texas Tech transfer and former walk-on Baker Mayfield into one of college football’s premier players, finishing fourth and third in the Heisman voting in 2015 and 2016, going into his senior season in 2017, where he would eventually capture the Heisman Trophy. When Riley, who was as hot of a coaching prospect as there has been in recent memory, was elevated to head coach in the 2016-17 offseason after Stoops suddenly retired, Rattler had the program and coach he wanted to play for, and it seemed to be a good fit.

Rattler led Pinnacle High to the state championship in both football and basketball in Arizona’s top classification in his junior season, but warning signs would soon start flashing. Rattler dazzled with his performance at the Elite 11 camp, but some onlookers were put off with his bordering-on-arrogant demeanor and the way he conducted himself. Then, with camera crews following him his senior season for the web series QB1, Rattler found himself in hot water. When he missed a Pinnacle game that was scheduled to be nationally televised on ESPNU, Rattler’s camp first told media that it was due to an MCL injury. That, however, was not the case. Rattler had been deemed ineligible for a violation of team rules and would miss the rest of his senior season.

Seventeen-year-old kids make mistakes all the time, though, and whatever the violation was, it did not dissuade Riley and the Sooners from having Rattler join the program for the 2019 spring semester as the heir apparent to a quarterback position that had now featured back-to-back Heisman winners and number one overall draft picks in Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Oklahoma brought in former Alabama star Jalen Hurts to be their signal caller in 2019, buying Rattler much-needed time to mature both physically and mentally. Rattler would play sparingly in that 2019 season, including an appearance against LSU in the College Football Playoff. Rattler took over on schedule when he was named the starter for Oklahoma going into the 2020 season.

It would be unfair to Rattler to say that he had a normal offseason to prepare to be the starter at one of the sport’s blue-blood programs. The COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, interrupting spring practices and closing football facilities all over the nation. There was uncertainty all summer long, with the Big XII finally deciding on August 12 to have a football season. Still, expectations were high for Rattler to continue producing at the level that had put an Oklahoma quarterback in the Heisman top-five five seasons in a row.

Things went sideways in a hurry for the first-year starter, as Oklahoma started 0-2 in conference play and 1-2 overall after Rattler threw a combined four picks against Kansas State and Iowa State. Things got better, though. Rattler led Oklahoma to a dramatic four overtime win against Texas to get Oklahoma to 2-2, and they would not lose again the rest of the season, beating Iowa State for the conference title before beating Florida in a rout in the Cotton Bowl, 55-20. The stats, all things considered, ended up good, as he completed sixty-eight percent of his passes for just over 3000 yards and 28 touchdowns to go with 7 interceptions in the eleven-game campaign, enough to earn him first-team all-conference honors.

The hype only grew over the long offseason. Rattler found himself at the top of many draft experts’ quarterback rankings, and national college football magazine covers were hard to come by without Rattler on the front. When the NCAA finally relented and allowed players to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL), Rattler immediately started selling gear with his trademark snake logo, and endorsement deals would flow in.

All of this, of course, brings us to now. How often has a starting quarterback on an undefeated team lost their job? Not many times I can remember. How many times has that quarterback been a preseason first team All-American? There’s no way it’s happened more than a handful of times.

Going into the Texas game, yes, the Oklahoma offense was struggling compared to their lofty standards, Rattler had completed 74 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns against just four picks. Yes, Oklahoma had survived close calls against Tulane, Nebraska and West Virginia, but they were winning. But, it was evident to anyone paying close attention that something was not right with Oklahoma. The weapons were certainly there. Kennedy Brooks is one of the best running backs in America. Marvin Mims and Jadon Haselwood are two top NFL prospects on the outside. The line play was good, a staple of any Lincoln Riley team. The explosive plays, that quick-scoring attack that Riley offenses had been known for, wasn’t there.

Things came to a head for Rattler’s Sooner career out of nowhere. Oklahoma trailed rival Texas 28-7 at the end of a quarter. “Texas is back” is one of the largest memes in all of sports, but it sure felt like it two Saturday’s ago at the Cotton Bowl. It was like watching the torch pass from Oklahoma to Texas in real time. Rattler had been unspectacular in that first period, leading a touchdown drive and throwing an interception, but it never felt like a benching was imminent.

Oklahoma’s first play coming out of the quarter change was a 4th and 1, and freshman quarterback Caleb Williams came onto the field. Williams, who for many was the top quarterback recruit in America in the 2021 class despite not getting a senior season at his D.C. high school Gonzaga Prep, is a better and more physical runner for Rattler. Given the circumstances, with an entire quarter break to talk about it, it made sense that Riley would put in Williams to convert a short-yardage situation that felt like it was 4th and ballgame for the Sooners, despite there being so much time left. What happened next may live in college football lore forever. Williams had arguably the highlight of the season so far, and ran sixty-six yards for an Oklahoma touchdown. The Oklahoma sideline went nuts, and the camera panned to a reactionless Rattler. A few hours later, and Williams had led Oklahoma back, saving Oklahoma’s playoff hopes, and beating Texas 55-48.

As much as Lincoln Riley wanted us to believe that his hand had not been forced by the outstanding play of Williams and the way his team rallied around the freshman, it became quite clear what would happen to Rattler, who had heard some boos in a few different Oklahoma games this season. Riley was furious when Oklahoma student writers used binoculars from a building overlooking the practice field to see that Williams was taking first team reps. Those same writers had also spoken to Rattler’s father, who assured them that Spencer was still all-in with the Sooners. The final two nails in the coffin came in Oklahoma’s 52-31 win over TCU last Saturday. When it came time for the starting lineups to be announced, the Sooner faithful erupted when it was Williams’ name announced as the starting quarterback. What followed was the final nail in the coffin, a virtuoso performance by Williams as he threw as many incompletions, five, as he had total touchdowns. An Oklahoma team that had been counted out of the playoff picture earlier in the season now finds themselves as, in my opinion, the nation’s second-best undefeated team and looks likely to make the CFP.

Rattler, on the other hand, looks like the odd man out. Rumors about him entering the transfer portal have only intensified after Williams’ wonderful performance. On Wednesday, Rattler briefly removed a reference to Oklahoma in his Instagram bio, before putting it back on there.

The portal looks likely for Rattler, who has now fallen from a top-five draft pick to taking second team reps in Norman.

Maybe Barton Simmons saying Rattler is a second-or-third round talent was exactly right.

(Stay tuned to Aaron Torres Online, as next week we will have a deeper dive into what could be a crazy transfer portal cycle for QB's)

Make sure to follow Garrett Carr on Twitter @RealGarrettCarr

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