The evolution of Caleb Williams and the instant remaking of USC into a contender

The video that’s been dubbed “45 Seconds of Madness” on YouTube doesn’t quite tell the full story. The final 45 seconds of a 2018 high school game between Gonzaga and DeMatha was one of the most thrilling finishes to a game, any game, ever. Randy Trivers, who is still the head football coach at Gonzaga, can recall the sequence from that night as if he was watching it off the clip that now has over 500,000 views, including a play that didn’t make the final cut.

In the video, Caleb Williams‘ heroics are on full display, but Trivers adds in the color that is missing. Gonzaga had gone down 20 points to DeMatha in the first quarter. What appeared to be a hopeless game turned into a comeback spearheaded by the then sophomore quarterback. Yet, with less than a minute left, Gonzaga still trailed by three points.

Williams needed to work some magic. The first escape was a third-and-33 that Williams had to convert after an offensive pass interference and a sack set them back. He shuffled around the pocket before dropping a downfield dart to his receiver. First down. A few plays later, an end zone fade gave Gonzaga its first lead of the night. It was short-lived — DeMatha returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, leaving Williams and Gonzaga only 15 seconds for a miracle.

The next play you see on the video is the game-winner — a ridiculous Hail Mary attempt where Williams tosses the ball way up in the air and it finds a wide receiver. Pandemonium ensues.

But Trivers likes to talk about the play that came before. It’s not in the video, but it’s just as crucial. To even have a shot at the Hail Mary, Williams needed a chunk of yards and he needed them fast. So, he dropped back, hung in the pocket and hit a receiver streaking toward the sideline. The throw went for 15 yards, left four seconds on the clock and the stage was set for the game-winning prayer. To Trivers, that play (as well as the third-and-33) in that environment, with the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship on the line, embodies Williams.

“There are a lot of athletes that love to be in control and on top when it’s favorable,” Trivers said. “But when the odds are not with you, or the situation is sticky — do you really want the ball? Do you really want the spotlight in that situation? When there’s a high possibility of failing? Do you really want that? He’s a guy that will genuinely take it every time.”

It’s often difficult to remember that Williams is still a teenager. He won’t turn 20 until the day before USC faces off against UCLA this season in November. It’s also hard to grasp that, between last season at Oklahoma and this year at USC, Williams has only started in 12 regular-season games in his entire college career.

“I’ve played alright, I feel like I can play better” Williams said this week when asked to assess his performance through six games. “I don’t feel like I’ve unlocked everything that I can do. I’m trying to get to that point because this team needs my best.”

As USC (6-0) heads to Salt Lake City for what will be one of the tougher games this season against Utah (4-2), Williams has looked and played the part of a veteran quarterback. It’s what has helped facilitate the transition of Lincoln Riley’s offense from Oklahoma to USC, and it’s what has allowed everyone from the left tackle who has been on the team for five seasons to the new star wide receiver to trust him to lead a team with immediate College Football Playoff aspirations.

AS PATRICK MAHOMES scurried away from a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defender, spun gracefully to avoid another and then tear-dropped a jump pass into the hands of Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire after traveling 39.4 yards a few weeks ago, Williams was watching.

“I thought it was awesome,” Williams said of the play. “And I said, ‘I can do that too.'”

It should come as no surprise to those who have watched him play that Williams watches and takes after Mahomes. Through six games, Williams has extended plays better than almost any other quarterback in the nation. According to ESPN Stats and Info research, Williams is averaging four seconds before a pass when pressured. Among quarterbacks with at least 30 such pass attempts, that is the fifth-longest average in all of college football.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Riley said. “That’s great if the pocket is clean all day. That’s fine. But I mean, in modern day college football, that doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t happen in the pros much either. That’s why you’re seeing an influx of guys who give you that ability and can make things happen.”

Williams isn’t exactly a running quarterback (he’s thrown for 1,590 yards and ran for 178 so far), but when necessary, he doesn’t hesitate to do so. This season, he’s looked confident taking off with his legs when the play calls for it, while also defibrillating plays when the pocket collapses and he seems on his way to being sacked.

“Sometimes you have to improvise,” Williams said. As a kid, he was on the smaller side, so he had to find ways to gain an advantage on those bigger than him. “That was always kind of one of my things … I’d just kind of duck under or duck under the legs or anything like that so yeah, I’d say I take a little pride in it.”

For the linemen who protect him and the skill players who surround him, learning about Williams’ propensity to keep plays alive keeps them on their toes. Literally.

“At this point, it’s like black magic,” running back Travis Dye said. “I turn around and it looks like he’s about to be sacked and he Houdini’s out of it. He can make a bad situation look just phenomenal. He’s Johnny Football without all the mess.”

“With him, you gotta keep going or you might miss a play,” tight end Malcolm Epps said. Epps credits part of Williams’ ability to avoid getting tackled and keep his legs moving to his work in the weight room. “Y’all don’t see him in the weight room, he lifts, he lifts like the rest of us not like other quarterbacks, he lifts.”

Like many other great college football players, Williams’ skill, work ethic and talent are undeniable, but how he applies those qualities is where he stands out.

“What you need in that position is this steadfast confidence,” Trivers said. “And you could sense it in him, you know, the way he moved, the way he walked, the way he showed guys that he was willing to prepare and work.”

As Trivers points out, Williams has never been a “rah-rah” guy, but rather through poise in pressurized situations and a short-term memory when things go awry, Williams motivates in a more subdued manner that projects assertiveness.

That confidence shows in the way he approaches everything from pass rushes to interviews, to the weightlifting Epps mentioned, to the way he connects with his teammates and really, anyone in his orbit. Trivers describes it as a unique charisma that creates a “magnetic, gravitational pull.” Riley calls it a “great feel for people.”

That much was evident to even the average viewer who tuned in to watch Oklahoma once Williams entered the game against Texas as a replacement for Spencer Rattler last season. The Sooners promptly made a 21-point comeback and won the game. Talk to the teammates he now has at USC, and there’s no shortage of singing Williams’ praises when it comes to his leadership, which began in earnest as soon as Williams arrived on campus. Once players understood what kind of offensive plan Riley and Williams were bringing to the table, the buy-in was automatic.

“It makes you want to do better, it makes you want to be better,” Dye said of watching Williams in Riley’s offense. “It makes you want to be more perfect.”

For wide receiver and reigning Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison, who transferred to USC at least in part because of Williams (both are from the Washington D.C. area), the appeal of playing with Williams was rooted in the fact that he knew Williams would get him the ball. Once they talked, he also knew he and Williams would connect off the field.

“You know how sometimes you can just read someone, you can tell that they’re being real,” Addison said. “That’s him, so that’s just kind of how that went. And I just trusted him with [all of] it.”

WHEN WILLIAMS WAS still in high school, former Gonzaga High and Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan would show up from time to time to throw the ball and throw with Williams. At that point, Hogan had been bouncing around the NFL for a few years.

“If you didn’t know which one was who and you just watched the ball come out,” Trivers said, “You wouldn’t really know, ‘Oh man, that’s definitely the NFL guy and that’s definitely the high school guy,’ You wouldn’t know it.”

Though Williams has often come off as a natural, the development of his talent has always been in the hands of someone who realized what kind of potential he had. Trivers took it upon himself to maximize Williams in his offense, and after four years, that responsibility has fallen to Riley, who succeeded in doing that to the point where Williams packed up his bags and followed him 1,400 miles west to try to build on what they started.

As Hal Mumme pointed out a few weeks ago, the trust between quarterback and coach is at the crux of what makes the Air Raid great. For Riley, whose track record with quarterbacks has been as good as anyone’s, that has rung even more true with Williams.

“It’s definitely more ideal,” Riley said of building his relationship with Williams from his true freshman season to his second year. “It helps you plan. You can start to project how people are going to play with him, how you want to play, how does that fit his skill set?”

The year-to-year advantage is clear, but when you’re trying to transition an entire offense into a different program, having continuity between coach and quarterback creates an invaluable trust. As Riley pointed out earlier this season, what the two have gone through — both at Oklahoma and in making the jump to USC — over the past calendar year has only strengthened their communication and connection.

“I trust him completely,” Riley said. “There’s not anything that’s offensive that we wouldn’t do or wouldn’t call with him. … I don’t worry about, ‘This is gonna confuse him,’ or ‘Is this gonna slow him down?’ He can handle it now.”

This week, Riley was asked about his relationship with one of his former quarterbacks — Jalen Hurts. Hurts, who now plays in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles, transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma where he became a Heisman Trophy finalist under Riley. The former Sooner smiled when talking about what he thought of their time together.

“Maybe more than anything, we got him to loosen up a little bit. Got him to relax,” Riley said of Hurts. “Jalen is a pretty serious, stoic guy, and then coming out of the program that he did, there’s a little bit of a different approach. [We] allowed him to be able to relax, play the game maybe a little bit more free flowing.”

While it may have been an adjustment for Hurts to go from Alabama to Riley’s Oklahoma team, contrasting that with Williams helps to understand why the two work together so well. Williams is already a loose guy, a relaxed but driven personality who embraces the free-flowing aspects of Riley’s version of the Air Raid. And in Year Two of their partnership, they have almost created a separate language for themselves — including gestures, hand motions and even whistles — only they can understand.

“We kind of communicate really fast when I’m on the field, and he’s on the sideline, just thinking through plays and things like that,” Williams said earlier this season. “Sometimes I’ll call the play, he likes it, he’ll give me the shoulders or give me a thumbs up, which means go ahead. So it’s a lot more trust, and a lot more flexibility.”

Their relationship has evolved to the point where Riley said he knows almost right away, between Williams’ mannerisms and such, what kind of day he’s going to have. When going over film from the previous week’s games, it doesn’t take many words for them to know exactly what the other will want to focus on or fix for the following week. The two now seemingly live on the same page.

“There’s just like a deeper understanding of what we’re doing,” Riley said. “Because of that, he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”

And because of Williams’ place on the team, not just as a quarterback but as a leader, that has meant that the entire team is, too.

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