Even if Jackson Arnold is the next Caleb Williams, Dillion Gabriel is no Spencer Rattler

Even if Jackson Arnold is the next Caleb Williams, Dillion Gabriel is no Spencer Rattler

Jenni Carlson: The cast feels eerily similar, but this OU quarterback story lacks the drama and plot lines of 2021.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Sep 5, 2023, 6:24am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Sep 5, 2023, 6:24am CDT

NORMAN — The Sooner faithful roared their approval for the former five-star quarterback turned OU freshman. Voices were raised. Cheers were sustained.

No, this wasn’t “WE WANT CALEB!” from 2021. 

Instead, OU fans let their adulation of Jackson Arnold be known Saturday afternoon when he entered the Sooners’ opener in the third quarter, taking over for starter Dillon Gabriel in what had become a blowout of Arkansas State. Fans had good reason to be excited about Arnold; he didn’t miss on a single one of his 11 passing attempts and was even more impressive with his feet, rushing for 39 yards on five carries, scoring a touchdown and sparking memories of the Belldozer. 

Truth be told, Arnold may be the next Caleb Williams, the next superstar Sooner quarterback.

But Gabriel won’t be playing the role of Spencer Rattler.

No doubt the two scenarios have some eerie similarities. The young quarterbacks’ pedigrees and strengths. The elder quarterbacks’ standings and limitations. But make no mistake: the situations are completely different.

The reason?

Rattler was the most disliked QB1 in OU history.

Disliked by OU fans, I mean.

Sooners everywhere might fight me on this, but it never felt like there was much love for Rattler. 

That started with his appearance in the Netflix reality series “QB1: Beyond the Lights.” He was one of three high school quarterbacks featured in season 3, and as cameras followed him around Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, they caught all sorts of moments that made him look cocky and arrogant.

Reality TV has little to do with reality, but that is how Rattler came across.

As a result, his attitude was questioned, his demeanor vilified. 

Then came the ultimate curveball: just as Rattler was set to take over the quarterback job at OU, the pandemic hit. No spring ball. Limited offseason workouts. A heavily isolated season.

While none of that seemed to impact Rattler’s production — he was the 2020 Big 12 freshman of the year who led the Sooners to a conference championship — it kept him at arm’s length from anyone outside the OU football program. Signing autographs? Meeting fans? Shaking hands? Kissing babies?

Almost none of that happened.

OU fans really never got to interact with Rattler. 

It’s possible that they still would’ve disliked him when he stopped making as many flashy plays early in 2021. Gone was the score-at-will, take-no-prisoners offense, replaced by a sputtering offense and a quarterback who had started throwing the ball to the other team too much.

After throwing only seven interceptions in all of 2020, he had three interceptions in the first 3½ games of 2021.

The third, right before halftime in a home game against West Virginia, was the one that sparked the OU student section to chant, “We want Caleb!”

Two weeks later, they got Caleb. 

OU fans got what they wanted when Caleb Williams (13) saved the day Oct. 9, 2021 in Dallas, leading a comeback that rallied the Sooners to a 55-48 win over Texas. (BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK)

He took over for Rattler after a disastrous start to the Red River Rivalry, and no doubt you know the rest.

Sooner fans were gleeful. Performance was part of the equation, but so was personality. Some called Rattler detached. Some thought him selfish; program insiders publicly refuted that, but I’m not sure what Rattler could’ve done to change people’s minds.

Listen, I’m not trying to make excuses for Rattler, but here’s what I know: he handled being benched about as gracefully as anyone could have. There were no outward signs of animosity or strife between Rattler and Williams, Rattler and the coaches, Rattler and anyone in the locker room.

What else I know: had he been the second coming of Baker Mayfield, no Sooner fans would’ve minded his personality. But of course, Rattler wasn’t Mayfield. Or Kyler Murray. Or Jalen Hurts. As good as Rattler was, he wasn’t transcendent.

Gabriel isn’t either.

He’s a really good major-college quarterback. He is likely to finish his college career as one of the top 10 career passing leaders in FBS football, and he might even overtake Mayfield.

But Gabriel isn’t a quarterback who carries team to victory by himself, not like Mayfield did at Tennessee in 2015 or Murray did at West Virginia at 2018 or Hurts did at Baylor in 2019 or even Williams did in Dallas. 

And while there are some OU fans who wish Gabriel was that kind of quarterback — then again, doesn’t every team want a quarterback like that? — there’s no bitterness directed at him. He has positive vibes from fans, maybe because of his laid-back Hawaiian attitude, maybe because he’s a guy who some see out in the community.

Now, if the offense falters badly or he struggles mightily, I assume OU fans will want a change.

“We want Jack-son”?

I guess anything is possible, but this feels different. Because of Gabriel, yes, but because of how OU may well be preparing to use Arnold, too. We saw him in some specialty packages Saturday, plays that could be used as the season goes on in short-yardage situations or goal-line circumstances.

Sure doesn’t seem like Brent Venables, Jeff Lebby and Co. are going to limit Arnold to mop-up duty. That could be a winning approach, both on the field and in the hearts of OU fans. And frankly if Gabriel handles it well — no reason to think he won’t — it could further solidify a completely different vibe this time around.

OU fans are likely to keep giving Arnold big ovations, but you know who else gets big ovations?

Dillon Gabriel.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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