Caleb Williams' transfer portal entry is latest and loudest example of free agency taking flight in college football

·Columnist
·5-min read

Caleb Williams, Oklahoma’s star freshman quarterback and a favorite to be the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2024, has entered the transfer portal, adding a massive pop of talent to college football’s new era of free agency.

If you thought players opting out of bowl games was causing the heads of the sport’s old guard to spin, well, welcome to the next level.

Now that players are allowed a single transfer without having to sit out a season, and with the era of name, image and likeness profiteering upon us, this is some combination of hot stove baseball and county fair auctioneer.

Complain all you want, but the reason Williams is looking at greener pastures is because the coach who recruited him and led him last season, Lincoln Riley, did it first and bolted to USC just hours after the Sooners' regular season finale.

Oct 23, 2021; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams (13) talks with head coach Lincoln Riley during the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams (13) talks with head coach Lincoln Riley during the second half against the Jayhawks in October. We know that at least one of them won't be returning to Norman for the 2022 season. (Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)

So what has always been good for the coaches is now good for the players.

Best opportunity. Fresh start. More money. Whatever.

College football, perhaps the most American of a sporting creation, is now boldly and openly embracing a most American of concepts — freedom of movement, capitalism, naked greed. None of those should be considered insults. It’s what makes the place. And the sport.

Williams, a former five-star recruit from the Washington D.C. area, went to Oklahoma to play for Riley. The fact presumptive 2022 No. 1 draft pick Spencer Rattler was in place as the starter did nothing to deter him.

Once Rattler struggled, Williams stepped in, famously leading Oklahoma from 21 points down to beat rival Texas in early October. Williams started the next seven games, and completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 1,912 yards and 21 touchdowns (against four interceptions) on the season. He also ran for 442 yards and six touchdowns.

Yet when Riley left, it became likely that Williams would too. Rattler, for his part, has already transferred to South Carolina, but OU on Monday also picked up quarterback Dillon Gabriel out of the portal after he transferred from Central Florida to (briefly) UCLA.

Around and around it goes.

“I think we all come to college to find our own path and prepare for the future,” Williams said in a statement. “I came to Oklahoma with a game plan, but with all of the recent changes, I need to figure out what is the right path for me moving forward.”

Makes sense. The change may be dizzying, but at least this is out in the open. Under NCAA rules, the only way Williams can talk with other coaches is by entering the portal. He can always go back, and Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione and new head coach Brent Venables already issued their own public statement pumping up the school’s tradition of developing quarterbacks, winning games and, of course, it’s NIL opportunities.

“Caleb Williams enjoyed an exciting and impactful first season at the University of Oklahoma and we will continue to be engaged with him and his family on a comprehensive plan for his development as a student and a quarterback.”

It all feels new, but it’s actually just overdue. And while some players will, no doubt, seek the highest NIL money possible, so what? Since when is seeking better compensation a bad thing for someone? It’s essentially how every job search in the real world works.

For Williams, however, NIL may not be the chief factor, at least not the short money of an endorsement or sponsorship deal. Williams and his father, Carl, long ago developed a plan with the focus on making Caleb the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick because it can mean as much as $20 million more in guaranteed salary from falling to 15th. And second NFL contracts for top QBs can approach half a billion.

“Professional development,” Carl Williams told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel when asked about the No. 1 factor in where his son would end up. “We want Caleb to be ready to play when he becomes a pro. You go to college to get prepared for your career. His chosen career path is professional football. We want him to be prepared for when that time comes.”

Williams’ move has a chance to upend the 2022 season. He’s that good and can now pick nearly any team in the country. It seems like Alabama (with returning Heisman winner Bryce Young) or Ohio State (with returning Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud) might not need him, but just about everyone else would.

What school has the best ability to prepare Williams for the NFL? Does he need returning talent? Does he need a major conference? Is the right coordinator or coach most important? No one knows for sure.

If he decides to move though, he could bolster Georgia, or make an instant contender out of USC or Michigan or Notre Dame, or head home to Maryland or, really, who knows? Maybe he stays put.

Carl Williams said that a crowded quarterbacks room or an entrenched starter won’t scare them away. Competition – and development – is the goal here. After all, they chose OU when Rattler was playing well.

Wild, sure? But sports change. Free agency and offseason speculation has never been bad for business. This is basically another level to high school recruiting which is nearly a sport unto itself.

Coaches will complain, but no one forced them to sign those big-money contract extensions. If they have to work harder to earn the cash, so be it. Besides, Caleb Williams is in the portal, but only because his coach went first.

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