Just a fair warning: you’re going to hear a lot about Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler in the coming months. As the 2021 college football season draws closer, the more you’re going to hear about Rattler potentially winning the Heisman while carrying the Sooners to another College Football Playoff appearance.
I’m just telling you now. In a 2022 QB group that features Sam Howell, JT Daniels, D’Eriq King, Kedon Slovis, Brock Purdy, Malik Willis and others, Rattler may end up being the best of them all.
The Heisman chatter already has legs. The redshirt sophomore is the favorite to win the sport’s most prestigious personal honor at +550 per William Hill Sportsbook. Plus money on a favorite is never a bad thing, and Rattler checks off all the boxes. He’s a rare player at an important position on what should be a preseason top-five team. In his first year as a starter, Rattler hit 3,000 yards passing (tops in the Big 12), 28 touchdowns and seven picks, five of which came in three games at the start of the year.
The Heisman pedigree is there, too, with Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield each winning the award in 2018 and 2017, respectively, while Jalen Hurts was the runner-up in 2019. All three would be drafted in the first two rounds the following spring with Murray and Mayfield going No. 1 overall.
Team expectations are high, too, as the Sooners should once again be favorites to win the Big 12 and make a playoff push. Meanwhile, college football is looking for a new face. Trevor Lawrence, who in many ways was the sport’s ambassador, is gone, as are Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones and others from a stacked quarterback class. There’s a lot of room at the top for Rattler to go from a regional name to a national one.
All of that is offseason fodder intended to hype Rattler up for 2021, but here’s why he can actually succeed.
He has the numbers
To start, Rattler was in the upper echelon of prolific passers in 2020 — and there were quite a few in that category. Here’s how Rattler stacked up against some of the best quarterbacks who departed after 2020. Specifically, we’re looking at pass efficiency, air yards per passing attempt (how far the ball goes in the air), first downs per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the percentage of times blitzed (5+ defenders) per dropback. National rank is with a minimum of 200 pass attempts.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Mac Jones, Alabama
Zach Wilson, BYU
Kyle Trask, Florida180 (4th)9.79 (22nd) 43.5% (4th) 5.38 (7th) 17.2% (62nd)
Rattler was a prolific passer in his first season as a starter, putting up comparable numbers to some of the best quarterbacks in college football. He was particularly effective at moving the chains with his throws, ranking just outside the top five nationally by throwing for a first down 41.3% of the time.
A big reason why is his combination of mobility and ball placement. Rattler throws as well on the move and/or off balance as any college quarterback. He’s Patrick Mahomes-like in his ability to extend the play, throw off balance and still put the ball exactly where it needs to be. That’s not to say he is Mahomes, but the qualities aren’t dissimilar.
Rattler’s tape against Texas is a mixed bag — more on that later — but his touchdowns are some of the best examples of his creativeness.
With most of his receiving corps returning in 2021, the connection between Rattler and his pass-catchers with a full offseason under their belt should be even better. The Sooners were plagued by drops in 2020 — more than 20 total — so if that can be cleaned up the big plays are certainly there.
Where and why Rattler struggled in 2020
Now on to the negatives. Rattler isn’t a perfect prospect. No one is, and you certainly can’t expect Rattler to be one after just one season. Also, it’s important to remember that there was basically no spring football or normal offseason for these players because of COVID-19. Rattler didn’t have the luxury of a normal transition to full-time starter.
That showed up early. Against Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas, Rattler got caught up in too many negative plays. Part of that was because of shaky offensive line play. Some of that was because running back Rhamondre Stevenson was still serving a NCAA suspension. Some of it was because he was trying too hard and made poor throws. And, on a couple of occasions, it cost the Sooners.
Those factors came to a head against the Longhorns, when, after back-to-back turnovers, the latter of which was really bad, he was benched early in the second quarter by coach Lincoln Riley.
Hitting a hard reset, even if only for a few drives, worked. Rattler was hot in the third quarter and led the offense on two touchdown drives, one of which was a 17-play, 87-yard behemoth. Oklahoma’s offense puckered up and ran cold in the fourth quarter with just 45 yards on 18 plays, but the ball was largely taken out of his hand. The Longhorns worked their way from a 14-point deficit to send the game into overtime, but Rattler played great then, too, with two touchdown passes and another one rushing.
But this wasn’t the end of Rattler’s ups and downs. Even in a 55-20 Cotton Bowl win over Florida, a game in which Rattler had three touchdown passes, his ball security was an issue out of the pocket on an early fumble. He’s always looking to make a play, and sometimes it’s to a fault.
These are mistakes he should minimize in time, but with Rattler, the negatives are more of a byproduct of the positives. If you want to open up the offense and create big plays, if you want a quarterback who can improvise, if you want someone who can be a playmaker when his team needs it, you might have to deal with some sloppy footwork and poor decisions.
Rattler was also prone to hold on to the ball too long. His O-line was streaky in 2020, but some of the pressures, sacks and turnovers were on him. Per Pro Football Focus, Rattler had an average of 3.18 seconds to throw last season. That’s very good! Only Notre Dame’s Ian Book had more time (3.24 seconds) for a full season-long average. Yet sacks, fumbles and some happy feet were part of Rattler’s negatives.
What Rattler has in 2021
The first thing that jumps out are the tangibles. The dude has a canon and he throws an effortless ball. He can fire off accurate downfield balls on the move and/or off balance. HIs playmaking ability out of the pocket is sensational. He has no fear about calling his own number to run the ball and can make defenders miss when he does. Whatever deficiencies he has in his mechanics — and he does, which is fine — or his decision-making is outweighed by the fact that, if you need a play, Rattler’s going to make the damn play.
That being said, the weapons he has at his disposal should inspire confidence that he doesn’t have to make every play, all the time. The Sooners are crazy loaded with pass-catchers. Theo Wease and Marvin Mims are probably the Big 12’s best combo today after combining for more than 1,100 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns last season. Also, Jadon Haselwood is now fully healthy. It’s been a slow start for the former No. 1 wideout recruit in 2019, who missed most of last season recovering from a torn ACL, but he had the highlight of the spring game in April.
There’s production everywhere. Drake Stoops is the ideal slot receiver. He will 100% do the dirty work, and yet he’s capable of being a playmaker down the field, like he was against Kansas State. He’s unlikely to ever lead the team in receptions, but he can play. The offense has three legit tight end/H-backs who can catch: Austin Stogner, Big 12 first-team selection Jeremiah Hall, and Brayden Wills. The running back rotation loses Stevenson (draft), T.J. Pledger (transfer to Utah) and Seth McGowan (dismissed), the top three rushers from 2020, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Kennedy Brooks, the team’s top back from 2018-19, is back after opting out. Tennessee transfer Eric Gray was a bright spot for the Vols and the team’s leading rusher in 2020. Redshirt sophomore Marcus Major adds depth after having a nice bowl game (110 yards rushing, 46-yard TD) against the Gators.
The question will be the offensive line, which replaces Creed Humphrey at center and has some competition at tackle. If those questions are answered, however, the Sooners have one of college football’s top offenses in the making. Rattler will have everything he needs, at least offensively, to make a run towards the College Football Playoff and the Heisman.
But that in and of itself is a lot of (probably unnecessary) pressure. Rattler is poised to have an impressive season numbers-wise. If he does, that should stand on its own merit, regardless of whether the other stuff comes to fruition. Rattler’s a dude and that probably won’t change regardless of Oklahoma’s record. He’s not as big as Lawrence, Fields, Trey Lance, et al, but he makes plays — throwing and running — that shouldn’t be there.
He likely will keep doing that. It’s who he is as a player and it’s something Riley loves. It was the same approach with Mayfield and Murray. But if Rattler is OK taking smaller gains (or smaller losses) instead of trying to hit the home-run ball every time the opportunity presents itself, he is going to be nearly impossible to stop.