University of Southern California sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams has been one of the faces of college football ever since he stepped onto the field in the Cotton Bowl Stadium and willed the Oklahoma Sooners to a comeback victory over Texas with his running ability last season.
Now, he returns to Dallas as a Heisman Trophy winner playing in the Cotton Bowl Classic with a completely different team and looking to ignite a rebuilding program.
Williams began his freshman year at Oklahoma as the backup quarterback to Spencer Rattler. He saw his first college game action in a week two blowout against Western Carolina, completing five of his ten passes for 84 yards and running for another 65 yards. Yet, it was not until the sixth game of the year that he would truly emerge.
Oklahoma entered its 2021 matchup against the University of Texas with a 5-0 record but quickly found itself in a 28-7 hole. The offense struggled to move the ball and needed a spark. It was then that Riley put Williams in the game.
On his first Big 12 snap, Williams scored on a 66-yard touchdown run. While far from a perfect game, the Sooners took control in the second half and won the game 55-48. Oklahoma was 6-0 and Williams had arrived.
Williams helped guide the team to an 11-2 season, only losing to Baylor and Oklahoma State. The quarterback finished the year with 1,912 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes, and just four interceptions while running for another 442 yards and six touchdowns.
As the season drew to a close, Lincoln Riley’s name came up as rumors swirled about open coaching positions at other schools. Riley was mostly tied to the LSU opening and publicly denied it.
But Riley did take another job — at USC.
The coach was officially hired by the Trojans on November 28, 2021, but Oklahoma still had a bowl game to play in late December. Williams decided to play in the game, although he was already considering his transfer options.
“It goes back to last year when I was obviously in a different situation,” he told reporters on Friday as he reflected on his decision to play in this year’s Cotton Bowl. “I wasn’t injured, but I could have sat out last year. I could have gone to the transfer portal early. It’s the same thing for me. I want to play with my guys.”
On January 4, Williams officially entered the transfer portal, and he committed to his former coach at USC in February.
“He’s always trying to learn how to be better. and I can relate to that because I’ve been able to do some pretty cool things and been able to make some pretty cool plays and all that. But I’ve wanted to be better in ways that I haven’t been, and so he’s helped me tremendously,” Williams said of his coach on Friday.
Williams is aware that not everyone was in favor of his decision, but he says he uses that as motivation.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder, and the chips keep kind of building throughout every year,” he said. “You can’t always keep everything out, but you can use it as an igniter. It lit a couple of fires under me and I use that as motivation and keep chugging along.”
The 2022 season saw USC improve from a 4-8 team to an 11-2 team on the cusp of the College Football Playoff. The Trojans’ only two losses came against the University of Utah, and the second cost the Trojans a conference championship.
USC entered the first meeting 6-0, and Williams played a brilliant game. The sophomore completed 25 passes on 42 attempts for 381 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 97 yards. Utah quarterback Cameron Rising was equally impressive that day, and the USC defense gave up 562 yards as the Utes pulled off the upset on a late two-point conversion.
The rematch brought similar frustration for the Trojans. Williams suffered an injury early in the game but only missed one play. With the long layoff since that game, he says he is good to go for the Cotton Bowl.
“I’ll be smart about it; Try not do anything crazy … but I wouldn’t go out there if I didn’t think that I couldn’t play. If it was still the same as if I just injured it, I wouldn’t go out there because I don’t think I’ll be good help,” he told reporters.
He was clearly not the same player as the USC offense struggled to keep momentum. Utah ended up winning the Pac-12 title in a 47-24 blowout.
Despite the two losses, Williams has had an incredible season as he threw for over 4,000 yards, 37 touchdowns, and four interceptions with a QBR of 86.6 — all among the top 10 in college football — and became the seventh USC player to win the Heisman Trophy.
“I mean, if you think about it, it’s special,” Williams said when asked about the honor. “Football’s been around for a while. To be part of a fraternity that’s that special, to think of all the college greats and NFL greats that have won that. There’s only 88 of them. Of us. I can say that now. So, 88 out of how many players that have come through college.”
One thing that coaches say makes him stand out is his uncanny elusiveness.
On Friday, Tulane defensive coordinator Chris Hampton compared Williams to NBA stars Ja Morant and Kyrie Irving.
“When the coverage breaks down, he can scramble and create plays with his legs, find guys open downfield. And sometimes when guys come free, they miss him. He’s really hard to get down. He’s like a Ja Morant/Kyrie type of guy. He can just make you miss.”
When asked about his elusiveness, Williams said he draws inspiration from NFL legend Barry Sanders.
“Barry Sanders was probably my favorite. [He could] change directions, move side to side, duck under people. Unique skillset.”
Hampton is not just worried about Williams’s elusiveness. The quarterback is lethal even if you can keep him in the pocket.
“He can avoid the rush as well as anyone probably in football, not just college football, but maybe NFL as well,” the defensive coordinator said. “He’s got real arm talent. He can throw the ball down the field. He’s got great pocket presence. He doesn’t get rattled.”
Caleb’s teammates have noticed the same things.
“We call him Houdini,” offensive lineman Justin Dedich said after practice on Friday. “You look back there, a guy somehow makes a miss and keeping the play extended. He is very elusive. And he’s a great talent.”
While it would be easy to already call this season a success, Williams and his team want one more win.
“We’ve been through the past 12 months together, and I want to finish it together. I want these guys that can’t come back, whether going pro or just out of eligibility, I want to make sure they go out on a bang.”
“It’ll be special but also carry momentum into next season.”