MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The kid, they heard, was going to be great. But all kids are going to be great, it can seem, when you’re a high school coach in Texas and a parent has your ear. The kid might have been one of many. After all, he looked like one of many, if you noticed him at all.
But once CeeDee Lamb started practicing with Foster High School’s team in the summer of 2013, head coach Shaun McDowell realized the freshman receiver was “head and shoulders above everybody else.” Four years later, McDowell hears the words that have just escaped his mouth and laughs. Lamb was more skilled, more talented, he explains, but head and shoulders may not have been the best term. “He was skinny,” McDowell says, “and scrawny-looking.”
There’s just a ghost of that wispy kid, rail-thin and barely 5’7″, left in Lamb today, all 6’2″, 190 pounds of him. Oklahoma’s No. 2 receiver, a sophomore who has been a starter since he walked onto campus before the 2017 season, looks loud, with short dreads, glittery earrings and college football’s widest smile. But he speaks softly, almost under his breath, and for much of this week leading up to the Orange Bowl, he’s said barely more than nothing.
Over and over, he’s declined to comment on the health of Marquise Brown, the junior who has been the Sooners’ top receiver in each of the past two seasons. Brown hurt his leg in the Big 12 championship game, and though he has practiced in the leadup to the Sooners’ College Football Playoff semifinal, his status for Saturday’s game against Alabama is still in question. So Lamb has been asked, indirectly, to play doctor (or informant), and he has demurred, and maybe we’ve got this all wrong. Brown may be a question mark (the sophomore told reporters on Thursday he expects to play), but Oklahoma knows exactly what it’s getting in Lamb.
This season, Lamb finished with 1,049 receiving yards to Brown’s 1,318. He averaged 18.4 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns for the best offense in the FBS, accounting for almost exactly a quarter of the receiving yards on a team that saw 19 different players catch at least one pass; seven Sooners logged more than 100 receiving yards. Brown may be Oklahoma’s most explosive receiver, the guy who will outrun defenders in space—but Lamb is nearly as productive, a machine on third and fourth down, a springy, slippery GIF-in-the making. And if Brown isn’t quite 100%, Lamb could hold the fate of the Orange Bowl in his hands.
Lamb earned national attention a year ago in Oklahoma’s double-overtime loss to Georgia in the Rose Bowl. By then, Lamb was hardly an unknown; he had started all but one game for the Sooners and logged 741 receiving yards before the playoff began. But in the second quarter against the Bulldogs, he became a household name when he caught the ball on a reverse and then flung it to Baker Mayfield in the end zone for a touchdown that put Oklahoma up, 30–14.
Lamb is admittedly one for theatrics. That’s a product of the way he has always played. Even as an undersized sophomore, he started for his high school team and made a name for himself as he out-jumped much larger defenders. “He had an uncanny ability to not get tackled,” McDowell says. “We called it ‘Madden Vision’ or ‘360 Vision.’ It was almost like he was in the matrix. He could anticipate naturally where defenders were going to be and where the ball was going to be, and he could manipulate his body to make catches and be exactly where the defender is not.”
That’s helped him become one of Oklahoma’s stalwarts on third and fourth down, the guy who can keep a crucial drive alive. Look no further than the Sooners’ game against West Virginia in November, a treacherous trip to Morgantown with a Big 12 title game berth on the line. With barely more than two minutes remaining, Oklahoma led 59–56 and needed to extend its drive. On fourth-and-five, quarterback Kyler Murray scanned the field for nearly 10 seconds without finding an open receiver before targeting Lamb on a low throw down the sideline for a first down. Thanks in large part to that converstion, the Sooners would manage to hold onto the ball for the remainder of the game, earning a conference title game berth and their shot at the playoff. “I just want to be that go-to person,” Lamb says. “I want to be the one on the team that the team can depend on to make that last play or help us secure the win.”
Barely two seasons into his college career, he has established himself as just that. Each summer since joining the Sooners, Lamb has bulked up in order to transform himself from a self-professed “terrible blocker” into a strong one—on an offense where even the most productive skill players are expected to lower a shoulder.
He has also made strides in his route-running, Oklahoma receivers coach Dennis Simmons says, proving the kid with unteachable talent is anything but uncoachable.
To beat Alabama, the Sooners are going to need all the offense they can muster, every trick that coach Lincoln Riley can produce. A healthy Brown would go a long way to ease any crimson and cream concerns, but no matter what, Lamb will be there to supply the yards and for the tricks. Don’t let the flash fool you: Lamb’s game is driven as much by consistency as it is by highlight-reel material.
Earlier this year, the staff at Foster High School was game-planning in the football offices while half-watching Oklahoma’s Week 2 game against UCLA. The Sooners were up big in the third quarter, and by then, Lamb had more than 100 yards. (He finished as Oklahoma’s leading receiver that day.) With 4:20 to go in the quarter, Murray fired a pass down the sideline for Lamb—too high, on course to sail out of bounds. No matter. Lamb jumped, extended his right arm and snared the ball one-handed. It would’ve been the best catch of the season if he hadn’t landed a shade out of bounds.
None of the Foster coaches were surprised at Lamb’s elevation, nor were they when he turned around and caught a 35-yard touchdown pass on the next Sooners drive, so soon after the best catch of his career had been nullified. They all remembered his sophomore season in high school, four years earlier, when Lamb had hauled in a game-winning Hail Mary against Calhoun High School—not even as the intended receiver—only to have it called back due to an illegal lineman downfield. It was late in the season, with playoff seeding on the line, and Foster lined up five yards back and decided to heave another jump ball into the end zone. Again, Lamb caught it, officially and for the win, even as the odds should have dictated the ball in a defender’s arms, as common sense should have led the coaches to another play call, as luck might have failed him.
“You’ve got to let your body take over,” Lamb says. “If you think a lot, I feel like that’s when you mess up.”