LOS ANGELES – Having already answered a volley of questions about the greatness of star quarterback Caleb Williams, USC Trojans coach Lincoln Riley paused before beginning another interview on the subject.
Then, Riley took things in a different direction.
“Look, I know he’s a great player, let’s get that clear [upfront],” Riley told Andscape last week. “He’s tremendous. If he can continue to stay healthy and get better, there’s no telling how good he can be. I do fully believe that.
“[But] he’s still got a journey and a climb. He’s not even close to the top of the mountain. He has a long ways to go. And he knows that better than anyone. That’s his focus and our focus each and every day. But, yeah, dude, I wouldn’t put any limits on what he can accomplish.”
And Williams’ potential for continued growth is among the reasons most NFL franchise owners are eager to have him lead their teams. Soon.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, Williams is off to another fast start.
On Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Williams completed 18 of 25 passes for 278 yards and four touchdown passes to lead USC, which is ranked sixth in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, to a 56-28 season-opening victory over visiting San Jose State. Although USC is only beginning its season, many NFL fans are already wondering where Williams will be in his next one.
A junior, Williams will be eligible to enter the 2024 NFL draft. Recently, he told ESPN he will make “an in-the-moment decision at the end of the year” about whether to join that process.
Many league talent evaluators have already made their call on Williams, comparing him with Kansas City Chiefs superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s best player.
Williams is well aware of the buzz.
“He is the best player in the world. He does special things. His teammates love him. The man has two [Super Bowl championships],” Williams said of Mahomes as he leaned against a wall at USC’s practice facility. “So to be compared to someone like that … it’s a sense of respect. But it’s also irrelevant, ’cause I’m Caleb. Caleb Williams here at USC. I haven’t even won a [college] national championship yet.”
Granted. But the Washington native, who turns 22 in November, has done more than enough to elicit rave reviews from NFL people.
As a sophomore at USC last season, Williams completed 64.5% of his passes for 4,537 yards and 42 passing touchdowns with only 5 interceptions. He also added 10 rushing touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman, which is awarded annually to the most outstanding player in college football.
While at the University of Oklahoma under Riley, Williams had a strong freshman season. After Riley departed Oklahoma for the same position at USC in 2022, Williams, whom Riley recruited to Oklahoma, transferred soon after.
NFL rules prohibit league employees from commenting on college players. However, privately, many league player personnel officials describe Williams as being a generational talent. Listed at 6-feet-1, 216 pounds, Williams displays unique “arm talent” and his footwork is considered second to none in the college game. Williams is most closely compared with Mahomes in his command of the pocket, his elusiveness facing would-be tacklers and his ability to produce on off-schedule plays with things break down.
Mahomes represents a new level in the evolution of the African American quarterbacks in the NFL.
Before Mahomes joined the league, Black passers had led teams to the Super Bowl. They had won the AP NFL MVP award. One is even enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Never, however, in league history had a classic dropback Black quarterback been the league’s consensus No. 1 player.
Eventually, Williams just may move the ball forward even more. He possesses such a rare combination of intellect, physical skills, instincts and leadership ability that at least one NFL head coach believes Williams is the type of player who should prompt league officials to fundamentally change the structure of the draft.
During an interview in November 2022, Sean Payton, who led the New Orleans Saints to a victory in Super Bowl XLIV, suggested the NFL should employ a draft-lottery system similar to that used in the NBA to reduce the temptation for teams to “tank” (strategically attempt to lose) to secure No. 1 overall draft picks. Since he was not employed by a club when he made the comments, Payton, now coach of the Denver Broncos, was not in violation of NFL rules.
Not surprisingly, Riley is focused on the present.
“I mean, I don’t know about all of that,” Riley said. “What I know is, I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”
Currently in college football, no one is better than Riley at developing quarterbacks. The facts are indisputable.
With Riley’s help, former Oklahoma Sooners quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals) each won the Heisman Trophy and were the first overall selections in their draft classes. After transferring from Alabama to Oklahoma to work with Riley, Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles) finished second in the Heisman race. Last season, Hurts led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl. He was selected as a second-team All-Pro and the runner-up to Mahomes in the AP MVP voting.
When it comes to the most important position in team sports, Riley knows of what he speaks, and “there’s 15 more levels” Williams can go to, Riley said. “He’s gonna have to continue to get better throughout his career. He’s still got the bulk of his career [ahead]. So, yeah, we’re gonna try to take a great step throughout the season. He needs to get better at a little bit of everything.
“He’s tremendous … but he doesn’t walk on water. He’s got a lot of work to do and he’s the first one to admit that. We’re pushing it on all the facets. We’re coaching him hard and he’s been very responsive. He’s a better player right now than he was [last season]. … But he’s got … a whole new set of challenges that are coming up.”
No one needs to remind Williams, who’s in lockstep with Riley.
“I write down notes every day, daily notes, [on what I] want to get better at that day,” Williams said. “There’s not one thing that I’m great at. There’s not one thing that I’ve mastered. Just trying to get better at everything, be the best I can for my guys [his USC teammates] and trying to win a bunch of games.”
Williams’ diligent approach has served him well since he was a fast-rising prep standout at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. Longtime Gonzaga football coach Randy Trivers enjoys talking about it.
Trivers coached Williams for three seasons (Williams’ senior season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic). In 2018, Williams led Gonzaga to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game. Early in the second quarter, the Eagles trailed 20-0. But they rallied for a 46-43 victory punctuated by Williams’ 53-yard desperation pass as time expired.
For a long time, Trivers said, Williams has been on his current trajectory.
“Let me tell you something, man, this cat is just different,” Trivers said in a phone interview. “It’s like in basketball. There are a lot of people who can score in the first three quarters. But in a close game [late in the fourth quarter], do you want that ball in your hands? In baseball, do you want to be the hitter in the ninth inning with the bases loaded, [two out] and your team is down by a run? Or do you want to be the pitcher in that situation [up by a run]?
“Caleb wants to be that guy. He wants to have the ball in his hands. And he has the unique combination of humility and confidence that makes guys want to follow him. They say, ‘He believes in us, so we’re gonna believe in him and keep fighting.’ Really, it’s kind of like Star Wars. This dude isn’t a Padawan [an apprentice in The Force]. His midi-chlorians [which measure potential in The Force] are through the roof. He’s not Baby Yoda. He’s a Jedi. Man, he’s a Skywalker.”
As a freshman, Williams came off the bench to lead Oklahoma to a 55-48 victory over archrival Texas. He passed for 212 yards, rushed for 88 and accounted for three touchdowns.
Trivers saw it coming.
“I’m not saying he will always be successful in those situations. You can’t say that about anyone,” Trivers said. “But what I am saying is he has the mindset to do it. And that’s something you can’t say about most guys.”
At USC last season, Williams helped Riley engineer a quick turnaround despite the team’s glaring lack of talent and depth on defense. The Trojans, who had only one winning record in the four seasons before the duo arrived on campus, went 11-3 overall and finished with the Pac-12’s best record at 8-1.
Unfortunately for USC, Williams suffered a hamstring injury on a 59-yard run during the first quarter of the Pac-12 championship game. He wasn’t in top form the remainder of the game, and USC’s defense was abysmal again in a loss to Utah. Another disastrous performance on defense was the biggest factor in USC’s loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.
With the return of Williams and the addition of many potential impact players on defense, the excitement about the Trojans’ program is palpable. Williams plans to do his part to keep it that way.
“You gotta go on the field,” Williams said, “and make special plays and be special.”
It’s clear that Williams is special. Any NFL talent evaluator worth one’s salt would agree. The question now is just how special will Williams wind up being at the game’s highest level.