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OU football: Why Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge could be a difference-maker quickly for Sooners

OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's recruiting pitch for players thinking about other schools: “You’re going to be sitting on the couch watching us play for a national championship.” [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]
OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's recruiting pitch for players thinking about other schools: “You’re going to be sitting on the couch watching us play for a national championship.” [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

As Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge’s virtual visit with OU wrapped up last spring, Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch looked in the camera and delivered a blunt, confident prediction.

“You can look at all this and you can go somewhere else,” Grinch said. “But at the end of the day, you’re going to be sitting on the couch watching us play for a national championship.”

The Sooners had already made quite the impression on the highly recruited defensive end from Portland, from his long-established relationship with outside linebackers/defensive ends coach Jamar Cain to the personalized, all-out press the entire coaching staff put on him during the visit.

But Grinch’s delivery took it over the top.

“Because that’s exactly the type of person I am and that is exactly the attitude I have toward things,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “I just felt like it was just perfect.”

Rawlins-Kibonge, eventually committed to the Sooners in June and signed in December without ever having visited Oklahoma.

The first time he met Sooners coach Lincoln Riley face-to-face was in January when he moved in.

Though confidence isn’t an issue for Rawlins-Kibonge, he still could hardly believe, even in December, he was signing with a program like Oklahoma.

“My first year of football was the year they offered me,” Rawlins-Kibonge said.

He’s played in all of 10 games.

Rawlins-Kibonge (6-foot-7, 240 pounds) had wanted to play football for several years but his mother, Teresa Rawlins, wouldn’t allow it.

So Rawlins-Kibonge made a name for himself on the basketball court.

“Everyone was always telling me to play (football) because when it comes to basketball, I play like a football player,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “I hustle, I get rebounds, I block shots, I’m just super aggressive.”

Entering his junior year, Rawlins finally relented and allowed her son to play football.

By the time Rawlins-Kibonge began playing football, he thought his future was set. The forward committed to Washington State to play basketball in June 2019.

But before his first season of football, his coach, Don Johnson Jr., surprised him during a talk.

“By the end of the season, I’m going to have you like 14 or 15 offers,” said Johnson, who is now the director of player personnel at Oregon.

Rawlins-Kibonge thought Johnson was crazy.

“But it was really like that,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “As soon as the first one came in, every week I was getting letters and calls. I literally was talking to somebody every day.”

His first offer came from Arizona State, where he was recruited by Cain, who was then the Sun Devils’ defensive line coach.

When Cain was hired by Lincoln Riley, Rawlins-Kibonge thought that was the end of his chance to play for Cain. But about two weeks after Cain arrived in Norman, he called Rawlins-Kibonge and extended an offer.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and virtual visits became the reality of recruiting, OU made a big splash.

“I did a couple other virtual visits and I’d log on there and there’s be a couple other kids on there with me and we’d raise our hands to ask questions and do group activities,” Rawlins-Kibonge said.

“Then I went to OU’s and they were on the field. My name was on everything. It was my locker, people were saying my name, and it was just me on the call, and it was every coach — I think there was only one coach missing — talking to me and my uncle, I think, at that time.

“They had the best virtual visit.”

Having all the coaches there made quite the impression, as did the personalization and a display of the Sooners’ Jordan Brand shoes.

But then Grinch delivered his closing argument and Rawlins-Kibonge was sold.

So was Grinch, even after Rawlins-Kibonge’s second — and final — high school season was wiped out by the pandemic.

“He’s one of those guys from a size standpoint that checks the boxes from an athletic standpoint,” Grinch said of Rawlins-Kibonge. “We think that is a very high ceiling, and part of that is his makeup. It’s not just the measurables or the film that shows some explosion. It’s the conversations that we’ve had — his desire, his want-to.”

Rawlins-Kibonge plans to play for the Sooners’ basketball team — if his body can handle it and the academic course load isn’t too much.

“‘It really does depend on how I feel after the football season heading into basketball season,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “It’s definitely a challenge, especially because of the degree I want to get.

“It’s going to be hard to be a dual-sport (athlete) and have that degree but at the same time, I don’t know if I’m really ready to stop playing basketball but I’ll just see how I’m feeling when the time comes.

Rawlins-Kibonge is planning on studying aerospace engineering, because of his fascination with space travel as well as automobiles.

“I’m really interested in seeing how things work and how we get to different things, different places, different ideas,” Rawlins-Kibonge said.

Ryan Aber

Ryan Aber has worked for The Oklahoman since 2006, covering high schools, the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the Oklahoma City Barons and OU football recruiting. An Oklahoma City native, Aber graduated from Northeastern State. Before joining The... Read more ›