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QB Caleb Williams, USC Trojans aim to meet high expectations in 2022

Crissy Froyd
Caleb Williams, USC Trojans
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Few college quarterbacks have received the same level of attention that surrounds USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams heading into the 2022 season.

Most analysts have the sophomore signal-caller listed within the top-five in active FBS quarterback rankings, with Williams sitting at No. 2 behind Bryce Young (Alabama) or CJ Stroud (Ohio State) more times than not.

Coming off of a standout season in which he took the starting job as a freshman from former projected No. 1 overall pick Spencer Rattler, the expectations surrounding Williams are sky-high.

The unexpected rise to stardom for Caleb Williams in 2021

Hardly anyone expected to see Williams take the field at any point ahead of the 2021 season, with all of the hype and projections that had Rattler as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. But Rattler struggled early on last season and was ultimately benched in favor of Williams on Oct. 9 in the second quarter of Oklahoma’s 55-48 win over Texas.

Williams completed 16-of-25 passes for 212 yards, with two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown on an interception-free performance. Rattler finished that game 8-of-15 passing for 111 yards with one rushing touchdown and one interception.

Rattler didn’t see the field again for the next two games, but was called off the bench in 52-21 win over Texas Tech halfway through the fourth quarter. Rattler completed all five of his passing attempts and was impressive on the deep shot he took, finishing with 67 passing yards and one touchdown with a 278.6 quarterback rating.

While that may have instilled some confidence in some schools prospectively looking at Rattler as a potential transfer option down the line, one of the things that didn’t change was that this was still Williams’ show.

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The first-year quarterback from Washington, DC entered the national eye almost immediately. One of his best performances on the year came just one week after that win over the Longhorns, when Williams completed 78.3% of his passes for 295 passing yards with four touchdowns through the air and one on the ground in the 52-31 win over TCU.

It wasn’t just unranked opponents Williams found success against, though. While he did struggle some in the 27-14 loss to the No. 13-ranked Baylor Bears in which he was benched for Rattler, Williams was money against the No. 14-ranked Oregon Ducks in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

Williams completed 77.8% of his passes (21-of-27 attempts) for 242 passing yards with three touchdowns en route to a 47-32 victory.

Former Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley noticed Williams’ talents early on, and it was apparent from the start that he was well-ahead of schedule.

“You know, he’s got a good calm demeanor about the game. He’s done a good job in scramble situations here early in the season. He does a good job not getting too high or too low. I think there’s a certain, you know, feel that he has on some things that are good, and I would expect it to continue to get better.”

Lincoln Riley on QB Caleb Williams in November 2021 (H/T Sports Illustrated)
  • Caleb Williams stats (2021): 21-4 TD-INT ratio, 86.5 QBR, 1,912 passing yards, 442 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns

And get better he did, outside of the few and far between hiccups he encountered at some points in his first season. Williams finished 2021 with a 64.5% completion rate (136-of-211 passing) with over 1,900 passing yards and 25 total touchdowns.

Setting expectations for the USC Trojans quarterback

NCAA Football: Southern California Spring Game
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Williams classifies as a dual-threat quarterback and he’s shown he can make plays with his legs. Entering his second season in college, it’s reasonable to expect the sophomore will throw the ball around more than he did at Oklahoma.

This isn’t to say that Williams didn’t throw the ball enough before, as he averaged 25 passing attempts per game over seven starts for the Sooners. But the statistics have shown that more quarterback runs don’t always lead to more wins for a team, a correlation that has shown up for Williams as well.

While his ability to use his legs is an obvious plus, it’s important to note that Oklahoma lost two of the three games in which Williams recorded 10 rushing attempts or more. So it’s not exactly a saving grace for a team that a quarterback can mobilize when called upon, although Williams’ ability as a passer has been apparent and should shine through even more moving forward.

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On top of just what the numbers say there, Williams should also take the next step as a passer based purely on the fact he’s still developing as a player. It’s fair to say that Williams didn’t encounter nearly the level of “freshman growing pains” that most freshman quarterbacks do, but logic tells us that having real in-game reps and another offseason under his belt will allow him to grow as a passer. And the fact he already showed as much promise as he did as a player in his first season thrown into the fire gives a lot of reason for optimism.

The sky seems to be the limit for Williams moving forward after he went from an inexperienced backup quarterback to a potential Heisman candidate in less than one full season, and he can build upon that in a new place under the same head coach.

There’s a reason why Lincoln Riley wanted a talent like Williams to tag along with him on the move, and that’s coming to become even more apparent as the Trojans stand a chance at experiencing a huge rise as a team in 2022.

Fox Sports analyst Joe Klatt is among those who have expressed confidence in the Trojans to do something major, recently taking to social media saying this could be a “top-10 team” and is a “solid dark horse pick for the CFP in 2022.”

That’s not an overly bold statement. All eyes will be on the electricity Williams brings at quarterback and where his ceiling is. But having 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison in the fold at wide receiver and solid offensive line pieces like highly-touted guard Andrew Vorhees and Virginia transfer tackle Bobby Haskins make this offense about as good as it could look on paper.

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Caleb Williams’ bright future in the NFL

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day
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While Williams won’t be a part of the deep 2023 NFL Draft quarterback class next April, he’s on track to be an early selection in the 2024 NFL Draft if he stays the course he’s currently on.

Williams could be part of an enticing 2024 quarterback class that projects to include names like Quinn Ewewes (Texas), Jaxson Dart (Ole Miss), Seth Henigan (Memphis) and Kyle McCord (Ohio State). Obviously, there’s a lot that can change in two seasons.

But as the landscape stands right now, Williams should not only be a top-five draft pick in 2024, but should be the first quarterback off the board as well. All of the other quarterbacks listed out there are still largely unproven and all stand a chance of seeing their draft stack either dramatically rise or drop off within couple of seasons.

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Williams is in the right hands as far as quarterback development goes. Riley has been an influential part in coaching Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. All of these players have seen at least some level of success in the NFL and there’s plenty of reason to believe Williams will be the next to join that list.

There have been many instances where Williams has been praised for his abilities as a runner. But he comes across much more as a quarterback who is already solid as a passer and can become more so, making him a “quarterback who can run” as opposed to a pure “running quarterback.”

This means he should fit perfectly with where the NFL is trending at quarterback, and that he stands a chance to heighten his floor to accompany his already-high ceiling at USC as well.