Oklahoma football: Keeping Caleb Williams at OU is roster Priority No. 1

Oklahoma's Caleb Williams (13) before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Iowa State Cyclones at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Oklahoma won 28-21.Ou Vs Iowa State Football
Oklahoma's Caleb Williams (13) before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Iowa State Cyclones at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Oklahoma won 28-21.Ou Vs Iowa State Football /

The world of Oklahoma football was turned upside down the week of Nov. 28. The Sooners are on the road to recovery, but the real impact won’t be known for a while yet.

Within just a couple of days of the announcement that Lincoln Riley was leaving OU for the head job at USC, a number of highly touted recruits in both the Sooners’ 2022 and 2023 classes had a change of heart and backed off of their commitment to Oklahoma. Several have already recommitted to Riley at USC.

Additionally, there has been fallout in the current OU roster, with several key receivers opting to enter the transfer portal, ostensibly because of the change in head coaches. Preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler, the No. 1 quarterback in the national 2019 class, was relegated to backup status midway through the 2021 season and was expected to leave the program at the end of the season.

But that was not the case with wide receivers Theo Wease and Jadon Haselwood, a pair of former five-star recruits in the same class that brought Rattler to Norman, as well as tight end Austin Stogner. Several other OU players have also elected to leave the program since the coaching change.

The internal bleeding within the Sooner program  has stopped for the moment. That’s partially because the new head coach, Brent Venables, is in place. It is also beneficial that the new offensive coordinator, Jeff Lebby, has been named and will be available shortly to meet with the players and talk about his style, offensive philosophy and plans for the future.

Currently, though, both coaches are heavily engaged on the recruiting trail, meeting with current commitments while also working to bring in additional top prospects.

The timing of the coaching transition dictated the immediate focus on recruiting, with the early signing period commencing next Wednesday.

Fortunately for Oklahoma, former head coach Bob Stoops was able to step in and work with the team in the immediate aftermath of Riley’s departure and will coach the team in preparation for the Sooners’ bowl game against Oregon, which itself is undergoing a head-coaching change.

OU was probably going to lose players to the transfer portal regardless of the circumstances, but the one player the Sooners absolutely cannot afford to lose is quarterback Caleb Williams. The former No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2021 class showed his star power and extraordinary QB skills after taking over for Rattler over the second half of the season.

Williams is the glue holding this team together right now, and the Sooners’ offensive strength for the next year or two is keyed around his staying at Oklahoma. When it was first rumored that Riley might be taking the job at LSU, attached to that speculation was that Williams would accompany the coach who recruited him to OU and transfer to LSU. That same concern surfaced when the news broke that Riley was instead headed to USC.

Both Stoops and Venables have met with Williams, and Venables has also spoken with Williams’ father. The young quarterback sensation has been noncommittal about the coaching change and has not given any indication that he might leave. He was in attendance at the welcoming ceremony when Venables was officially introduced as the 23rd Oklahoma head coach.

The Oklahoma offense, which had been a high-powered juggernaut in Riley’s previous four seasons as head coach got off to a lethargic and sputtering start to the 2021 season. When Williams took over at quarterback against Texas, he delivered an immediate spark that had been missing in the offense. You could see how the rest of the offensive unit rallied around him.

Because Williams is young and this is his first college season, he naturally struggled at times, especially when the competition got stronger. But that was to be expected with his baptism under fire.

Williams’ retention is a critical factor in keeping the nucleus of the Oklahoma offense together and competitive for at least another year or until Venables and his staff can get their own players in the mix. If Williams were to leave it could prompt additional players to leave and force the Sooners into a full-scale rebuild.

Williams situation may be unsettling at the moment, but it’s very possible he could end up the same or even better than he was before under Riley’s tutelage. And he certainly is better off at a program like Oklahoma than he would be going to some other big-name program where there would likely be a quarterback competition. New offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby will play a big role in convincing Williams to stay put.

The young quarterback’s numbers from his first collegiate season are impressive, especially considering he played for just half a season. Williams completed 115 passes for 1,670 yards, an average of 14.5 yards per completion, and 18 touchdowns. His touchdown to interception ratio was better than four to one. His passing efficiency rating (166.7) was eighth best in the nation.

And that was what he did with his arm. Williams was also the team’s second leading rusher with 408 yards and six touchdowns. The true freshman signal caller had six of Oklahoma’s nine longest runs from scrimmage this season, including touchdown runs of 74 and 66 yards. He had four runs of 50 yards or more and six of at least 40 yards.

His value to the Sooners is crystal clear, and it will be a big factor as well in OU’s ability to bring in a strong 2022 recruiting class, the first phase of which will come to closure beginning this week with the early signing period.