NORMAN — Marquise Williams sat alone inside North Carolina’s football facility on the night of Sept. 4, 2015. It was the first weekend of his senior season as the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback.
Williams entered the fall of 2015 with a goal of putting North Carolina “back on the map.” Instead, he was picked off three times in the season opener, including a back-breaking interception in the end zone that sealed a 17-13 loss to South Carolina that dropped the Tar Heels to 0-1.
When the team bus rolled back into Chapel Hill that night, Williams hung back in the film room, toiling over the tape and wondering if he’d lost his starting job until his phone buzzed with a call from offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.
“He called me and told me, ‘This is your team. Play your game. Do everything you’ve been doing because that’s what got you here. Don’t switch up for anybody,’” Williams recalled.
Williams kept his job, and with Littrell calling the plays, North Carolina went on to set the school’s single-season scoring record en route to the ACC Coastal Division title that fall.
What became a defining season for Williams, Littrell and the Tar Heels began with Littrell’s late-night phone call to his quarterback, one insight into the signal caller set to take over Oklahoma’s offense in 2024.
“That night killed me as a player. It just took a lot out of me,” Williams said. “Seth helped me gain that confidence back.”
The 2015 season is the last time Littrell served exclusively in an offensive coordinator role. Next fall, he’ll take charge of the Sooners’ offense as OU embarks on life in the SEC.
The Sooners officially announced the internal promotions of Littrell to offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley as co-offensive coordinator Wednesday afternoon, filling the opening left by Jeff Lebby days after his departure for Mississippi State.
Littrell, an analyst with the Sooners this fall, will serve as OU’s quarterbacks coach and handle play-calling. Finley remains in his role coaching the tight ends with “an increased role in offensive game-planning and oversight.”
“Yes, this was an easy and convenient move,” Venables said in a statement. “But it was also the best move for our program, our players and our staff. I went through a thorough process and vetted and visited with a lot of candidates, including sitting head coaches, former head coaches, NFL assistants, quarterback gurus and others. But everything kept bringing me back to this duo and our offensive staff as a whole.”
A Mike Leach protégé who gained his introduction to the air raid offense as a player at OU, Littrell constructed potent offenses in coordinator roles at Arizona (2010-11), Indiana (2012-13) and North Carolina (2014-15), then charged a series of high-powered attacks over his seven seasons as head coach at North Texas from 2016-22.
In front of Littrell now is perhaps his biggest job yet as a coordinator.
Alongside Finley, he’s left to maintain one of the nation’s most productive offenses as the Sooners transition into a new conference, and it’ll be Littrell who oversees the development of Jackson Arnold, the quarterback Lebby deemed “the future face” of the program prior his exit.
So, what can OU fans expect from their new play-caller?
“He’s just a good guy,” said Hal Mumme, a pioneer of the air raid who has known Littrell since the former OU fullback entered coaching. “He’s a fun guy. And he’s a very, very bright offensive mind.”
Understanding Littrell’s path and the air raid
Littrell, the son of a former two-time national champion at OU, appeared in 45 games at OU from 1997-2000. His junior season in 1999 happened to overlap with Leach’s lone year in Norman, and the fullback and the offensive coordinator hit it off fast.
Littrell, Leach and former Trent Smith used to dip Copenhagen snuff in pregame warmups. When Leach infamously left a phony play script for the Texas coaching staff to discover prior to Red River 1999, Littrell was part of the plot. Years later, Leach would hand Littrell his first assistant role coaching running backs at Texas Tech from 2005-08.
Lubbock is where Mumme first came across Littrell.
Connected from their time together scheming scoreboard-busting offenses, first at Iowa Wesleyan, then Valdosta State and Kentucky, Mumme and Leach visited often in those years.
Sometimes Leach would spend a week with Mumme at New Mexico State. More often, Mumme came to Lubbock. They’d spend hours breaking down film with staffers on hand, then head out for beers.
On those visits, Mumme identified the enthusiasm Littrell carried for the game.
“He liked learning,” Mumme said. “Smart people don’t talk a lot. They listen a lot. Young, smart people do that. That’s the way Seth was when he was young.”
Over film sessions and beer and four seasons on Leach’s staff, Littrell immersed himself in the air raid. He took it with him when joined Mike Stoops’ staff at Arizona and stepped into his first play-calling role in 2010, then did the same at Indiana, North Carolina and initially with North Texas.
(Seth Littrell’s introduction to the air raid came under Mike Leach. He later took it with him to Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina and North Texas. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY SPORTS)
Like Leach, Littrell added his own wrinkles along the way. In his final seasons at North Texas, Littrell moved toward something closer to the veer and shoot offense Lebby ran at OU.
“I remember calling Seth a few years ago at North Texas and he was doing some things I liked,” Mumme said. “You watch the NFL now and all the coaches in the NFL are doing it — they’re running tight splits with the receivers. Lot of bunch sets. Motions across.
“Seth was doing all that five years ago.”
In a statement with Wednesday’s announcement, Littrell said the Sooners’ terminology “won’t change” from how OU has operated over the past two seasons, but hinted at potential changes.
“Whenever there’s a different guy calling the offense, you’re going to see different flavors here and there,” he said.
Littrell may shift closer to Lebby’s scheme, but his roots and background lie in the air raid.
At its core, the scheme Mumme and Leach developed, then spread all over the country, is intended to force an opposing defense to defend the whole field on every play. Played primarily out of the shotgun with four wide receivers, the air raid lives on deep balls, short throws to speedy receivers and simple run schemes, relying on the quarterback to make quick reads before and after the snap.
Mumme makes a simple distinction between the air raid and Lebby’s offense.
“We’re going to pass to run (in the air raid),” he said. “(Lebby) is going to run to pass.”
How will the Sooners fit into Littrell’s system?
In his two seasons with Littrell at North Carolina, Williams encountered a player’s coach, “one of the smartest dudes” he’s ever been around and a coordinator who kept a constant presence within the team facility.
“He was always in the building,” Williams recalled. “He never leaves the freaking building man. Sometimes his wife would have to call to get him out of the building.”
At North Texas, Littrell held an open-door policy and shared meals with players and their families. On Sundays, players, staff, wives and kids would gather on the turf at Apogee Stadium for Cookie Night. Litrell is undoubtedly a cultural fit within Venables’ program.
His offense should fit the Sooners, too.
Barring a return from Dillon Gabriel in 2024, it will be Arnold’s offense to run next fall and Littrell’s job to shape a system around the former five-star prospect.
Athletic quarterbacks who make good decisions, move with their feet and fire accurate throws have thrived in Littrell’s offenses. Arnold fits that build.
A sharp ability for reading defenses and call pre-snap changes — as Arnold did on the decisive third down at BYU earlier this month — has also been paramount to success in his system.
“Most of the great quarterbacks I see right now, not only are they great passers but they’re great athletes who can hurt you with their feet,” Mumme said. “That’s what guys like Seth can do a great job with — he can take the air raid package and add a run game to it that’s pretty devastating.”
With Littrell at North Carolina, Williams produced numbers that rank second in program history in total yards and touchdowns. Mason Fine, the quarterback from Locus Grove High School, took over the school record book in his four seasons at North Texas and closed his career 34th on the NCAA’s all-time passing list.
Arnold, whose commitment to OU has not reportedly wavered since Lebby’s exit, is well-equipped to find success in Littrell’s offense.
“He trusted me enough to change a play,” Williams said. “He has that trust in players. He’s a guy that cares about players.”
One celebrated element in Littrell’s promotion is the partnership he’ll form with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, drawing from a decades-old connection formed at Texas Tech and later Arizona.
Littrell’s offenses have produced consistently productive run games and effective running backs over the years. Indiana finished 30th in rushing (201.8 yards per game) in his final season with the Hoosiers in 2013. At North Texas, the Mean Green did not have a rusher over 850 yards only twice in Littrell’s seven seasons.
OU’s run game picked up in 2023 when the Sooners turned to more simple schemes. Littrell’s past offenses have succeeded by doing the same, casting opportunities for running backs such as Gavin Sawchuk, Jovantae Barnes, Daylan Smothers, Kalib Hicks and No. 1 running back commit Taylor Tatum.
“He’ll create some plays that make you think he’s a damn magician,” Williams said.
Littrell’s North Texas offenses that finished top 30 in scoring four times from 2016-22 made good use of their wide receivers. He’ll have plenty to work with next fall.
If Jalil Farooq returns for his senior season, he’ll lead a group of downfield threats that includes Andrel Anthony, Nic Anderson, Jayden Gibson and Jaquaize Pettaway. On their way in the Sooners’ class of 2024 are four-star pass catchers Zion Kearney, Ivan Carreon and Zion Ragins, along with three-star prospect KJ Daniels.
Whatever version of the system Littrell runs — an air raid or a variation of the veer and shoot — it’ll hinge on the playmakers in the receiving game.
“You’ll see them look to throw deep,” Mumme said. “But you’re also going to see them throw short to people that know how to score as many times as possible.”
Each of the last seven OU offensive coordinators — Leach, Mark Mangino, Kevin Wilson, Chuck Long, Josh Heupel, Lincoln Riley and Jeff Lebby — later went on to land head coaching jobs.
Littrell arrives in his role already with head coaching experience that reshaped his vision of the game. In his seven seasons at North Texas, he came to fully understand the important balance between offense, defense and special teams.
“We’re all going to pull the rope in the same direction,” he told The Athletic in 2018.
Balance is something the Sooners have struggled for in their two seasons under Venables, at least in part because of the pace of Lebby’s offense.
OU ranked 127th and 84th nationally in time of possession over the last two seasons. In their eight regular season losses, the Sooners lost the possession battle by an average of 8:10. Operating with one of the country’s fastest offenses, OU defended more snaps than all but 11 programs during the 2023 regular season.
The Sooners — and their fans — are hungry for a more complementary style of football in Norman. Can Littrell, whose offenses have always featured steady run games, deliver it?
Venables called Littrell’s promotion alongside Finley’s the “best move” for the program.
Time will tell on that.
Like all OU offensive coordinators, Littrell will be judged against Sooners play-callers of the past. He’ll be graded against Lebby’s record in Norman and now at Mississippi State. In the near term, he will be measured at least in part by how he handles Arnold’s progression.
Those judgments will get made in 2024 and beyond. Until then, OU moves forward with a coordinator who brings continuity, program ties and a track record of success to an offense that will need to hit the ground running strong next fall.
“To me, this is kind of a lay-up,” Mumme said.