College News & Analysis

College Football: All eyes will be on South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler as he takes on Clemson in Week 13

Columbia, South Carolina, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) directs his offense against the Tennessee Volunteers in the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Spencer Rattler‘s college career has been defined by unpredictability and chaos. It's been a rollercoaster that has taken fans and analysts through the full spectrum of ups and downs, but the flashes of rare arm talent have always been present.

Once thought to be the next great Oklahoma quarterback, the now 22-year-old was sent to the bench in 2021 and transferred to South Carolina this offseason in the hope of reviving his career.

So far, it's been much of the same. In 11 games, he's earned five PFF game grades below 60.0, the lowlight coming in Week 6 when he struggled to a 34.4 grade against Kentucky. But he's also produced the kind of high end that has kept him firmly on the NFL draft radar, the most notable of which came last weekend when he passed for 438 yards and six touchdowns to beat No. 5 Tennessee, all but eliminating the Volunteers from the College Football Playoff.

The rise to superstardom

A five-star recruit of the 2019 class, Rattler committed to Oklahoma as the top quarterback prospect in the nation. He spent one season behind Jalen Hurts before taking control of the reins in 2020.

Expectations were high, not only because of Rattler’s obvious talent but also because of head coach Lincoln Riley’s track record with his quarterbacks.

Oklahoma quarterbacks from 2017-2019
Name Year PFF Grade
(Rank among FBS QBs)
Heisman Finish Pick in NFL Draft
Baker Mayfield 2017 94.5 (1st) 1st 1st
Kyler Murray 2018 94.6 (1st) 1st 1st
Jalen Hurts 2019 91.8 (2nd) 2nd 53rd

Unfortunately, that hype quickly dissipated, as early-season losses to Kansas State and Iowa State left the third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners with a 1-2 record after three games.

The fault didn't lie squarely on Rattler's shoulders. In those three games, the Phoenix, Ariz., native went 69-of-94 (73.4%) for 977 yards and 10 touchdowns, earning a 91.5 PFF passing grade that trailed only Alabama’s Mac Jones (93.5) and Clemson‘s Trevor Lawrence (94.5) in the Power Five through Week 5.

However, he was responsible for four ill-timed interceptions — three of which came against Kansas State — leading many to point the finger at the redshirt freshman.

The Sooners rebounded nicely from that slow start, winning their final nine games, including the Big 12 championship and Cotton Bowl. The only FBS quarterbacks who finished the season with a higher grade than Rattler (92.5) were Zach Wilson, Mac Jones and Justin Fields — all of whom were selected in the top 15 of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Rattler’s 32 big-time throws were tied for the third-most in the country, and he led all FBS quarterbacks in passing grade (76.7) and big-time throw rate (16.7%) on pressured dropbacks.

Only Zach Wilson (99.9) and Mac Jones (98.9) earned a better passing grade than Rattler (98.1) on deep throws, as the Sooners QB went 29-of-57 for 1,014 yards, 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield.

Spencer Rattler: Passing stats and rank on 20-plus-yard throws in 2020
Stat Rank
Completions 29 7th
Yards 1,014 9th
Touchdowns 13 5th
Adjusted completion % 64.9% 3rd
Passer rating 121.5 4th
Yards per attempt 17.8 7th
PFF Passing grade 98.1 3rd

He looked like college football's next big star.

The fall from grace

Because of his success as just a redshirt freshman, Rattler entered the 2021 season as BetMGM’s preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy (+800). He was also the No. 1 overall prospect on PFF’s preseason draft big board.

However, something felt off almost immediately. Rattler’s deep ball, a strength in 2020, took a nosedive in 2021.

Spencer Rattler on 20-plus-yard throws
Year Passing grade Adjusted Comp. % Turnover-worthy play %
2020 98.1 64.9% 5.6%
2021 45.5 35.3% 21.1%

His deep ball didn’t just take a massive dip in quality; it also drastically fell in quantity. Rattler went from a bomb dropper to a far more conservative quarterback in 2021.

Spencer Rattler’s contrasting playstyles
Year Deep pass % Average depth of target Average time to throw
2020 18.0% 10.2 yards 3.11 seconds
2021 9% 7.8 yards 2.83 seconds

Perhaps the biggest culprit for the freefall was his regression outside of structure, which is a significant part of his game but a facet of play that is very unstable from year to year.

From 2020 until his benching against Texas in 2021, Rattler recorded the third-most outside-of-structure dropbacks among all Power Five quarterbacks.

In 2020, that playstyle was incredibly successful. His 91.3 passing grade on plays outside of the structure of the offense was the best mark in the PFF College era (since 2014). In 2021, Rattler’s outside-of-structure grade dropped to 77.9, still seventh among FBS quarterbacks but more than 13 points below his record-setting 2020.

In fact, he had more turnover-worthy plays outside of structure than he did big-time throws last season.

Spencer Rattler outside of structure
Year Big-time throw % Turnover-worthy play %
2020 14.6% 2.7%
2021 4.5% 5.9%

The way defenses schemed for Rattler also changed, showing him a significant increase in zone coverage last season compared to 2020.

How defenses played Rattler
Year Cover-0, Cover-1 % Cover-2, Cover-3, Quarters, Cover-6 %
2020 19.4% 61.4%
2021 9.9% 72.7%

The rate at which Rattler faced man coverage fell from 22.9% in 2020 to 10.3% in 2021. Defenses forced him to take a more methodical approach to his game, which can explain why he looked so uncomfortable.

Before the season, Rattler was the betting favorite to win the Heisman and go first overall in the NFL Draft, just as past Oklahoma legends Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray did. Six weeks later, he was benched in favor of true freshman Caleb Williams.

The flashes remain

Instead of declaring for the NFL draft, Rattler transferred to South Carolina to play under Shane Beamer, who served as Oklahoma's assistant head coach during Rattler’s first two seasons.

For the first 10 games, it looked as if nothing had changed, as Rattler’s 61.7 grade in that span was just 115th among FBS quarterbacks.

Against fifth-ranked Tennessee, though, something clicked. Not only was Rattler’s 93.1 passing grade the highest among all FBS quarterbacks for the week, but it was also the best since his redshirt freshman season in 2020.

Rattler completed 81% of his passes for a career-best 438 yards and six touchdowns. He also had five big-time throws and no turnover-worthy plays in the Gamecocks’ 63-38 upset over the Volunteers, who were knocked out of playoff contention with the loss.

Perhaps the most impressive part of his performance was his willingness to play within the pocket. Five of his scores and big-time throws came from inside the pocket, along with 401 of his passing yards.

It remains to be seen whether Rattler will declare for the 2023 NFL Draft or return for his redshirt senior season. Regardless, his game against Tennessee showed that there’s a glimmer of hope for the once “next big thing.”

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