A quarterback of one of the country’s leading quarterback factories, one of the nation’s top recruits, was yanked from the lineup and replaced with a young firebrand who rallied the team.
“It’s uncomfortable, it’s awkward, it’s unfortunate,” he said on Monday.
We’re not talking Spencer Rattler — at least not yet. But Max Browne can feel the similarities in what he went through at USC in 2016, when he was benched after three games and watched Sam Darnold reel off nine straight wins. So he knows why a reporter is calling, and yes, he can absolutely relate to what Rattler is going through at Oklahoma right now, with freshman Caleb Williams supplanting him.
“I think that’s probably one of the worst parts about the quarterback position is obviously only one guy plays, which is not an issue at any other position,” Browne said.
The No. 20 overall recruit in the 2013 ESPN 300, Browne was ranked as either the No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback by every major recruiting service. As a 6-foot-5, 230-pound star at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington, near Seattle, Browne won two state titles, two Gatorade Player of the Year awards and broke the all-time Washington passing record, throwing for nearly 13,000 yards with 146 touchdown passes. He picked USC over Oklahoma.
In 2016, he was named the Trojans’ starter by then-coach Clay Helton and, like Rattler, was tabbed as a team captain. After three games in which the offense struggled and USC started 1-2 with losses to Alabama and Stanford, Browne was benched for Darnold, a redshirt freshman who then lit a fire under the Trojans.
Rattler, who was the No. 29 recruit in the 2019 ESPN 300, carried much of the same expectations when he chose Oklahoma — over USC — after breaking Arizona’s state passing record, throwing for more than 11,000 yards with 116 TDs. Like Browne, in his first year as a starter, the Sooners began 1-2 last season. Rattler was benched during the fourth game (against Texas), but he bounced back to win that game, as well as hold onto the starting job.
Their paths diverged there, especially as the Sooners won their final seven games of 2020 and Rattler entered the 2021 season as the preseason Heisman favorite and a potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. But now Rattler, winner of 14 straight games with a 15-2 career record, is on the bench, watching Williams become a breakout star.
Browne said that’s where he empathizes most with Rattler, feeling the burden of history at schools that routinely produce star quarterbacks like Oklahoma and USC, places where style points matter.
“The standard is so high of what that fan base is supposed to expect,” Browne said. “Anything less than first-round NFL quarterback play feels like a disappointment.”
So as the college football world watches and wonders how the Oklahoma quarterback saga will play out, Browne knows firsthand the balancing act that Williams, Rattler and OU coach Lincoln Riley are all performing.
Oklahoma fans have seen the future, and it’s with Williams as their new superstar. When he was announced as the starting quarterback against TCU on Saturday night, the Oklahoma crowd gave him the rock-star treatment.
— Brandon Drumm (@BrandonDrumm247) October 16, 2021
In return, Williams played all the hits, thrilling the faithful with four touchdown passes to just five incompletions, going 18 of 23 for 295 yards and becoming the first true freshman to start at quarterback for OU since 1990. Williams’ meteoric two-week breakout — first coming off the bench to lead the Sooners to a historic comeback against Texas, then his electric start against the Horned Frogs in a 52-31 win — looks like a masterstroke by Riley, invigorating an offense that had struggled with Rattler at the helm.
But Riley, who isn’t much for hyperbole in general, seemed to keep his comments even more muted than usual after Saturday’s game, following a week of rampant speculation about which QB he’d start.
“Caleb got the opportunity tonight and obviously did a great job with it,” Riley said. “And I’m confident that had Spencer gotten the opportunity tonight, with the way he practiced, he would have played very well also.”
Almost every answer managed to keep the praise to a minimum. Williams played well, but the offensive line was improved and the pocket was clean, Riley said, which makes it a lot easier. The receivers made more plays after the catch, too. A reporter followed up by asking how rare it is to see such a young quarterback with such poise.
“It was good,” Riley said, looking down, with a hint of resignation. “Caleb did a good job. Yes, he did a good job. Good job by everybody — it takes everybody — and they all did a good job.”
Riley pushed all the right buttons and saw his latest pupil thrive, yet seemed almost annoyed by the praise. It was a stark contrast to the atmosphere provided by the nearly 85,000 Oklahoma fans on Saturday.
It’s understandable, Browne said. Some of it is personal. A coach like Riley, who is not only the head coach and offensive coordinator, but also the quarterbacks coach, spends an inordinate amount of time with those players. Riley’s reputation as a “quarterback whisperer” has long been attributed to the communication and trust he builds.
“Speaking from my experience, I was close with Clay Helton, so to go into that office and have that conversation, you better believe it challenges the relationship,” Browne said of being benched. “It’s not just a playcaller/thrower connection. It’s a mentor/mentee thing. It’s a friendship in many regards. It makes this whole thing even more uncomfortable.”
It likely became even more difficult after Williams put on his cape against Texas at the Cotton Bowl, a rivalry game in which legends are made, and returned to Norman as a conquering hero. Before Saturday’s game, highlights from the Red River Showdown comeback played on the video board and worked the fans into a lather.
They were ready to see for themselves. And by every metric, Williams has already been a difference-maker for the Sooners.
In Oklahoma’s first five games of the season, they averaged 6.3 yards per play, which ranked 40th in the FBS. Against Texas, when Rattler was on the field, the Sooners averaged 5.6 yards per play. With Williams at the helm, they averaged 9.7 yards. Add in the full TCU game, and OU is averaging 9.4 yards per play with Williams, which would be No. 1 in the FBS over the whole season (Coastal Carolina leads at 8.8).
Rattler has averaged 7.2 air yards per pass attempt this season, 113th out of 125 FBS quarterbacks who have the qualified number of attempts. Williams averages 11.5 yards in the air, which would rank ninth in the country and second among Power 5 quarterbacks if he qualified. On passes of 10 or more yards downfield, Rattler had thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions. Williams has already thrown five touchdowns (with no INTs) in 29 such attempts.
Naturally, all the hype and attention shifts, but Browne said one can’t imagine the feeling of being on the other side of it.
“I was a captain and then I was running scout team on Tuesday and Wednesday practices which is weird,” Browne said. “Your teammates become a little awkward around you, not sure what they’re supposed to say. I remember my coach having me break down the team after practice and doing the team prayer to, like, keep me involved. But at the end of the day, it’s just weird.”
Oklahoma is No. 3 in the AP poll, squarely in the hunt for its seventh straight Big 12 championship and a shot at a College Football Playoff berth. While the Sooners’ defense has struggled and is banged up with some key injuries in the secondary, the offense again looks like it can be a threat to keep up with anyone.
But Williams’ star turn means the Sooners have to keep walking a fine line.
Kennedy Brooks has been a beneficiary of the pressure that Williams, who is a much more dynamic running threat than Rattler, puts on defenses. The Sooners didn’t have a 100-yard rusher for the first five games of the season. But Brooks ran for 217 yards against Texas and added 20 carries for 153 yards against TCU, thanks in part to the threat Williams presents. In those first five games, Brooks had just seven carries on zone-read rushes. In the past two games, 33 of Brooks’ 45 carries have been on zone reads, going for 262 yards.
“It just takes the pressure off me knowing that there’s two people that can run the ball in the backfield,” Brooks said on Saturday. Still, like Riley, Brooks was careful to praise Rattler just minutes later.
“He’s locked in,” Brooks said. “He’s doing whatever he can for the team. We all follow him. He’s still a captain, and we’re still behind him. He’s doing a great job.”
Last week and again on Saturday, Riley has repeatedly cited external criticism of Rattler as being selfish or motivated by individual interests, while he does not see that from his perspective.
“I feel like the outside perceptions of what went on here this week and then actually what went on here this week could not be more opposite,” Riley said.
Still, that’s a concern, Browne said, just because the clock is ticking in a player’s mind.
“I’m sure Lincoln Riley knows that for Spencer Rattler, there’s probably an element of him checking out just a little bit,” Browne said. “That’s just human nature. For fans, there’s always another big-time quarterback recruit, there’s always like the ‘next man up,’ but when you’re in it, this is your one shot. Eligibility is so precious.”
Browne opted to transfer. He went to Pitt in 2017, where he won, then lost, then won back the starting job before suffering a season-ending injury.
“I viewed transferring as a quasi-failure,” said Browne, 26, who’s now a part-time college football analyst for USC and the Pac-12 Network with a day job as a commercial real estate agent in Los Angeles. “Now transferring feels like just part of the game and maybe Spencer, in his mind, is saying, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work out this year, I’ll transfer somewhere else and we’ll be all good.'”
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes that would be the best option for Rattler to recapture NFL teams’ attention.
“I don’t think it makes sense for Rattler to enter the 2022 draft if he plays sparingly the rest of the season,” said Kiper, who ranked Rattler as high as No. 2 in his preseason Big Board but has since dropped him out of the top 25. “He’s not going to want this tape being the last thing NFL scouts see. Rattler is probably going to have to transfer next year and find a new school, and I think he can reestablish himself there. If he can get back to the basics, he can still have an NFL future.”
Rattler’s dad, Mike, told the OU Daily last week that no decision has been made.
“For right now, [Spencer] is focused on working for this team, and we’ll see what happens after Jan. 10,” Mike Rattler said. “Hopefully he’ll be playing in the national championship on Jan. 10, and then after that we’ll evaluate where he is as far as if any teams are interested in him in the NFL. If we think, ‘Hey, you know what, we may ought to do another year or something at Oklahoma, wherever’ … we’re leaving our options open. But for the most part, right now, we don’t even talk about it, because he’s got a task at hand to deal with.”
In the meantime, he’s got to watch all that Heisman hype shift to Williams, who went from unlisted at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill to 25-1 odds after the TCU game. Naturally, Browne said, that would be difficult for anyone to see the winds change so quickly. All those preseason accolades seem out of reach because Riley made the swap.
“Now the reason it’s not happening,” Browne said, “is in large part because of a decision that you’re making. It’s an uncomfortable situation. There’s no good way to slice it.”
That’s why, Browne said, you shouldn’t expect Riley to lavish the freshman with excessive acclaim, even as fans do.
“I don’t think I ever had a coach lie to me but I definitely had coaches — especially when I got benched — massage the language to try to keep people as encouraged as possible,” Browne said. “Because that’s the deal with the quarterback position. If you’re one switch away from losing your job, you’re also one hit away from being right back in there.
“As they’re making a national championship run, they’re one hit away from Spencer Rattler being right back in the middle of things.”