June 17, 2024

Caleb Williams aims to lift Lincoln Riley, USC to new heights in 2023

Caleb Williams admits that he doesn’t need you to like him. Not right now.

Following an eventful offseason in which he threw out the first pitch for his hometown Washington Nationals, was quoted in People Magazine, and won an ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year, he knows he represents the pinnacle of excellence in the sport.

And, yet, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner finds that this 2023 season is unique in its challenge.

“It’s been a new challenge for me. I’ve had a lot of challenges so far over three years,” the USC quarterback told me in a 1-on-1 interview during Pac-12 media day. “And this is just another challenge for me being able to adapt to the team and try and help to the best of my ability, being hard on the guys. And it goes back to studying these guys, Kobe (Bryant) and (Michael) Jordan, people like that. It goes back to if you dislike me now, I promise you’ll love me later. If you disliked me in the offseason, I promise you’ll love me during the season.”

Such is the attitude Williams has carried since he first arrived at the college level in Norman, Oklahoma, and was heralded as the next big thing — this coming at a moment when that title seemed to belong to 2021 Heisman winner and future No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young.

Then came the move out west.

Williams followed Lincoln Riley — the man who recruited him to Oklahoma — and moved to South Central Los Angeles, both to the cheers of USC fans and jeers of Oklahoma fans. At a program that finished 4-8 the previous season, Williams led the Trojans to an 11-win season and a bid to the Cotton Bowl.

He was so good last season — 4,537 passing yards, 52 total TDs, five INTs — that Heisman voters saw fit to make him the first Heisman winner to not reach the College Football Playoff since Lamar Jackson in 2016. He was crowned the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft before Christmas in 2022.

Full interview: USC quarterback Caleb Williams and coach Lincoln Riley

Full interview: USC quarterback Caleb Williams and coach Lincoln Riley

Though Riley has coached four Heisman finalists, three Heisman winners, two No. 1 overall picks and already seen one of his quarterbacks play in the Super Bowl — all before Riley’s 40th birthday — even he admits he hasn’t had one quite like Williams.

“He is definitely unique,” Riley told me. “And I think his skill set. And there’s probably some combinations of some of the guys that I have previously been lucky enough to coach in him.”

But two items glaringly separate Williams from Riley pupils Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts and Spencer Rattler: He is the only one who has had to help transform a program from a loser to a winner, and he’s the only one who hasn’t suited up for a College Football Playoff.

And that’s the thing that’s missing not just from his résumé but from Riley’s. As great as Riley has been as a head coach — perhaps the best start to a six-year career this side of Barry Switzer — he has yet to win a CFP game (or beat Utah for that matter). 

Ultimately, Williams is at USC this year because he needs to be. NFL rules wouldn’t let him enter the 2023 Draft, even if he wanted to. But Williams himself might not have.

Accepting the Heisman Trophy last December, he noticed that the guys invited to join him as finalists in New York all had at least one more game to play — two wins from the only trophy Williams has left to chase in this sport.

He realizes that no other Riley quarterback has succeeded in winning a national title. He realizes that is the glaring omission on his coach’s résumé. I asked him what it might mean to him to be the man to fill that in for Riley.

“To be his first QB to be able to help them reach that goal, it’d be huge for me,” he replied. “Nobody else would be able to say that.

“It would mean the world to me.”

As it should.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to “The Number One College Football Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill. 

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