In his first season as the starting quarterback, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler posted a Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of “only” 81.2, which made him “only” 11th among qualified players in 2020. But no team would feel sorry for the Sooners, who are known for churning out elite QBs: Since 2017, Lincoln Riley’s first as Oklahoma’s head coach, just 25 FBS teams have had even one quarterback deliver a season with a QBR better than Rattler’s last season. Oklahoma had three: Baker Mayfield in 2017, Kyler Murray in 2018 and Jalen Hurts in 2019.
Mayfield and Murray were Heisman winners and No. 1 picks; Hurts was the Heisman runner-up and a second-round pick. By that standard, Rattler’s 2020 does indeed qualify as a significant drop-off. But it appears that slip could be temporary: Early in his third year at Oklahoma, Rattler is billed as a Heisman contender and one of the top prospects for the 2022 NFL draft.
If there’s one key to Riley’s quarterback record at Oklahoma, it’s that he tailors his scheme to the signal-caller’s strengths. Mayfield, who had the worst QBR outside the pocket of the group, was also the most accurate passer, finishing with an FBS-leading 70.5 completion percentage and with an interception rate of just 1.5 percent in 2017.1 Then came Murray, by far the best improviser of the group, with a QBR of 98.5 outside the pocket. He added a rushing element, with 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. Riley then brought in Hurts from Alabama — the best rusher of the three, with a team-high 1,298 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in 14 games. Those three players quarterbacked Oklahoma in consecutive years.
Rattler lagged slightly behind his three predecessors in almost every metric last season, and he threw four total interceptions in early season losses to Kansas State and Iowa State. But he may have shown signs of an identity that could put him on par with Mayfield, Murray and Hurts. Like Murray, he was terrific throwing on the run. Rattler stacks up better against the other three quarterbacks when you look at their numbers outside the pocket and when the defense is blitzing — Rattler was better against the blitz than against three- and four-man rushes in 2020. That’s a difficult skill to magnify because it depends on a defensive decision, not an offensive tendency, but it makes Rattler hard to stop.
As Rattler begins his second season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback — the first since Mayfield to start two seasons in a row — much of his projection is based on Riley’s pedigree as a coach. Four returning FBS quarterbacks2 posted a better QBR than Rattler in 2020, but Rattler was the second-highest quarterback in The Athletic’s latest NFL draft rankings,3 in which Dane Brugler wrote, “Rattler is a prime candidate to jump up this list over the next few months.”
Rattler was a highly regarded recruit, and that combined with Riley’s tutelage makes his emergence feel like a no-brainer. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that he’ll reach the same elite level. In the season opener Saturday, he threw two interceptions as Oklahoma struggled to put away Tulane, and afterward, Riley said, “He missed a couple of throws. Not only that, but he missed them in places that you can’t. So, he was OK. He can play better.”
In Oklahoma’s system, Rattler should improve. Riley’s scheme is praised around the NFL for being complex and forward-thinking, especially with the league’s interest in quarterbacks with processing power. “He definitely makes it easier at the quarterback position, going through your reads, seeing coverages, teaching us a lot of good things,” Rattler said in an interview on Fox last week. “It’s been great so far, and I’m excited to see what he dials up this year.”
If Rattler reaches the highest levels this year before presumably moving on to the pros, can Oklahoma keep its ‘Quarterback University’ momentum going? All signs point to yes. This year, the Sooners brought in five-star quarterback Caleb Williams, the No. 7 overall prospect in 247Sports.com’s 2021 composite rankings who was impressive in Oklahoma’s spring game when he was supposed to be still in high school. And in the 2023 class, Riley has a commitment from five-star recruit Malachi Nelson, the No. 4 overall prospect in his class.
Taking elite quarterbacks every other year allows them to serve as backups as freshmen and then start for two years before leaving for the NFL, as Rattler could next spring. If the Sooners’ five-year assembly line of standout quarterbacks feels repetitive, well, the odds are it will continue long into the future.