MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As a rule, football coaches don’t tend to get giddy, but Shane Beamer jokes that Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley comes pretty darn close when he watches redshirt freshman center Creed Humphrey maul opposing defensive linemen on tape.
“I know it’s funny to say, but he really is almost giddy. He will lean up in his chair and say, ‘Did you see what Creed just did, that block he just made?'” said Beamer, the Sooners’ assistant head coach for offense. “He’s been a man for us there in the middle this season.”
And he will need to be a man again on Saturday night against Quinnen Williams, Alabama’s Outland Trophy-winning nose guard.
Riley, Oklahoma’s second-year head coach, is as eager as anyone to see the two behemoths clash in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl (8 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN).
“It won’t be their last matchup,” Riley said confidently of two guys destined to be fixtures in the NFL trenches for years to come.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Williams has been college football’s most dominant breakout player this season, and as a redshirt sophomore, is shooting up the NFL draft boards. But Riley isn’t so sure that the 6-5, 325-pound Humphrey hasn’t been as valuable as anyone on Oklahoma’s entire team this season. And, yes, that includes the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Kyler Murray.
“He’s been a game-changer for us,” Riley said. “He’s probably the biggest difference from this year comparing all the other lines from previous years. He’s a dominant center, and you don’t come across those very often in coaching. It’s just a difficult position to do it, especially to do it as a freshman the way he’s done it.
“He’s been huge for our growth and made us tougher to defend.”
Humphrey grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and attended his first OU game as a 5-year-old with his grandfather, who had season tickets. The only thing more intertwined in Humphrey family blood than Sooner football was wrestling. From the time Humphrey was 4, he was on the mats. His father, Chad, was a three-time All-America wrestler at the University of Central Oklahoma, and his older brother was all-state in high school.
“There’s nothing like the mentality of a wrestler and learning how to use leverage as a wrestler transitions perfectly to football,” said Humphrey, whose old wrestling tights from when he was 9 years old showed up on screen during the telecast of the Big 12 championship game earlier this month.
“I still catch a lot of grief about that,” Humphrey said.
Always big for his age, Humphrey has also always been strong. Or as they say in Shawnee, country strong. In fact, when he showed up on Oklahoma’s campus as a freshman, he was already one of the strongest players on the team. He was bench-pressing 400 pounds and squatting 600 pounds, and those numbers have only soared.
“Some of the stuff I saw him doing in the weight room, even coming in, I was shocked,” said Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore, who’s Humphrey’s running mate in the weight room. “I’m one of the stronger guys in the weight room, too, but to see him throw up weight like it’s nothing is incredible. He’s definitely showing it on the field, too.
“So whatever he’s doing or whatever his parents are feeding him at home is paying off.”
Humphrey says unabashedly that Oklahoma has the best offensive line in the country, and he didn’t even join the starting lineup full time until the fourth week of the season, when he supplanted redshirt senior Jonathan Alvarez.
“He’s got one of the best in the business coaching him [offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh] , and mentally, he’s so far beyond of where he should be,” Riley said. “Last year actually worked out perfectly for him. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to redshirt him. He was our backup center all year. So he got a ton of experience even though he wasn’t playing on Saturdays, and it’s paying off now.”
Humphrey knows fully what he’s up against in Williams, who leads Alabama with 18 tackles for loss and is anything but your standard space-eater.
“Every time he plays, he’s always looking for a ticket to the ball,” Humphrey said. “That’s what stands out. A lot of nose guards don’t really do that and don’t have the quickness to get there. But these are the kinds of tests I like. It’s why I came to OU.”
And it’s why Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium, after all the talk about the two flashy quarterbacks, Humphrey versus Williams just might be the most fascinating (and pivotal) part of the game.