USC’s new rivalry assassin: Five things to know about QB Caleb Williams

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams runs with the ball against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.
Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams runs with the ball against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. Williams has followed coach Lincoln Riley to USC.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Here are five things to know about new USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who announced that he would follow head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Los Angeles — the surest sign yet that the Trojans’ splashy hire of Riley is going to pay off with substance sooner rather than later.


He’s a rivalry assassin

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams stands on the field after leading the Sooners to victory over Texas on Oct. 9.
(Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press)

USC is coming off its most forgettable season in decades, a campaign that featured a 15-point loss at Notre Dame and a humbling 29-point defeat to UCLA at the Coliseum. The Trojans’ last win against the Fighting Irish came in 2016, and Chip Kelly’s Bruins have split four games. The quickest way for Riley to ingratiate himself with his new fan base is to change those trends.


Enter Williams, who jogged onto the Cotton Bowl field Oct. 9 with Oklahoma trailing the hated Texas Longhorns 28-7. The freshman’s first play in the Red River Rivalry? A 66-yard rush for a touchdown that signaled to Steve Sarkisian’s bunch that Williams was going to bring a different element than the struggling Spencer Rattler. Williams’ moxie and presence rallied the Sooners, who needed every one of his 300 total yards to escape Dallas with a 55-48 win.

The next week, Sports Illustrated’s website ran a feature story on Williams with the headline “SUPERMAN REVEALED!”

Caleb Williams ended weeks of speculation and joined the USC program, giving Lincoln Riley the most coveted quarterback in the transfer portal.


He’s a D.C.-made superhero

Lincoln Riley, left, talks with quarterback Caleb Williams, center, and wide receiver Michael Woods II.
Lincoln Riley, left, talks with quarterback Caleb Williams, center, and wide receiver Michael Woods II during an Oklahoma win over Texas on Oct. 9.
(Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press)

As Sports Illustrated’s profile of Williams explained, his exploits were not surprising to those who coached him and played with him in Washington, where he grew into the nation’s top quarterback recruit in the 2021 class.


Williams attended Gonzaga College High, an elite, all-boys Catholic school, located just a mile from the U.S. Capitol, so it doesn’t seem he will be a fish out of water walled in from L.A. by USC’s prestigious gates. At Gonzaga, Williams naturally picked up the nickname “Superman” because of his flare for the dramatic and game-saving ability.

Sure, Williams was born with special gifts, but he had also been groomed from a young age by his father, Carl, to excel in the biggest moments. Carl is a co-owner of a D.C.-area Athletic Republic, a national chain of training facilities where Williams worked with an experienced crew to hone the craft of quarterbacking.


There was Sooner strife

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams throws against Baylor on Nov. 13.
(Ray Carlin / Associated Press)

Williams picked Oklahoma not because the East Coast kid dreamed of hurling passes on the prairie but because he wanted to be coached by Riley, who had just developed Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall NFL draft picks. It appeared Rattler would be next, and the expectation was that Williams would spend his first fall in college readying himself to take over in 2022.

But Rattler did not look the part of a Heisman favorite in the season’s first month, and some disgruntled OU fans chanted, “We want Caleb!” When the Sooners fell behind to the Longhorns, Riley made the bold move to see what the freshman could do.

The next week, Riley did not name a starter, hoping to keep it quiet. The OU Daily, the student newspaper, watched practice from a nearby parking facility and reported that Williams was taking the first-team snaps, which riled Riley, who was known for limiting media access in Norman. Freshmen were not allowed to speak to media, and Williams was not made available until after Riley had left for USC, after OU’s bowl game.

Breaking down who will be working under Lincoln Riley in his first year as USC football coach.

For all the hype Williams received after the Texas win, the Oklahoma offense still did not fully take off with him under center. The Sooners barely survived a trip to Kansas. They were stymied by Dave Aranda’s Baylor defense in a road loss in Waco, Texas. Williams completed just 20 of 39 passes in a defeat at Oklahoma State that kept the Sooners out of the Big 12 Conference championship game.

Williams still completed 64.5% of his passes for 1,912 yards and 21 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He also rushed for 442 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.


He will be a face of NIL

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams passes against Texas Tech on Oct. 30.
(Alonzo Adams / Associated Press)


On July 3, a few days after the NCAA returned name, image and likeness rights to college athletes, Williams posted on Twitter from his account @CALEBcsw, “I’m Not a Businessman; I’m a Business, Man!” The quote was from a Jay-Z song, and Williams left that tweet pinned to the top of his profile.

With a combined 180,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, he will remain open for business in Los Angeles’ media market, which had to be a big draw for him in picking USC, along with his trust in Riley to continue his development.

For a reference point, after three years playing at USC and signing with Klutch Sports Group for NIL representation, former Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis has 40,000 combined followers. Williams arrives with an established brand, ready to cash in.

On the heels of a season marred by his arrest and temporary removal from the team, USC’s Bru McCoy has entered the NCAA transfer portal.


He will be a Heisman Trophy favorite

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams looks to pass against Kansas on Oct. 23.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Williams’ performance against Texas was so startling that within weeks rumblings began that he could win the Heisman despite not starting until halfway through the season. At that point, none of the preseason favorites had made their cases for that kind of recognition, and Williams’ talent was undeniable.


Next year, Bryce Young will be defending his Heisman win, and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud should put up huge numbers once again in Columbus. Young and Stroud are Southern California kids who felt at the time they had to leave L.A. to make their name given the uncertainty at USC under Clay Helton.

It will be up to Williams, an L.A. transplant, to prove to future Southland prospects that is no longer the case.