Column: Unfazed newcomer Caleb Williams, just 19, shows he’s ready to lead USC football team

USC quarterback Caleb Williams looks on at the end of the Trojans' spring game at the Coliseum on April 23, 2022.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the star transfer from Oklahoma, looks on at the end of the Trojans’ spring game Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Caleb Williams tapped his teammates on their shoulder pads as he walked behind them to his chair in the interview room.

Once seated, the 19-year-old USC quarterback threw his head back and exhaled.

Williams was the youngest of the five Trojans on the dais but clearly the most comfortable.


The others were typical college players. They chose their words carefully. They were practically frozen on stage.

Williams looked as if he were in his own living room as he reflected on USC’s spring game.

He raised his eyebrows.

He furrowed them.

He smiled.

He laughed.

He gritted his teeth.

He didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to. His expressive face and calm demeanor conveyed what was important, which is that he is built for the spotlight.

A sophomore transfer who followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, Williams is the player who most symbolizes this new era of USC football.

Which, by extension, could make him Los Angeles’ next superstar athlete.

USC coach Lincoln Riley was encouraged by the energy during the Trojans’ spring game, which featured big plays from Caleb Williams and some surprises.

The glorified scrimmage on Saturday amounted to a public unveiling, but Williams treated it like, well, a glorified scrimmage.

“I don’t really get nervous,” he said with a nonchalant delivery that emphasized his point.

USC claimed the announced crowd of 33,427 was the largest to watch a spring game since attendance records were first kept in the late 1990s, but Williams was unfazed.

He completed his first nine passes. He finished his first two drives with touchdown passes to Mario Williams, another sophomore transfer from Oklahoma.

Alternating drives with backup quarterback Miller Moss over two 15-minute halves, Williams was 10 for 12 passing for 98 yards.

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Riley said. “He’s becoming a more seasoned, experienced quarterback.”

He’s already electric.

Williams can run, as he showed on the first play of his second drive when he pump-faked and bolted down the right sideline for an eight-yard gain.

He can throw, as he demonstrated on the next play when he lofted a perfectly weighted pass that traveled nearly 30 yards in the air as defensive lineman Tyrone Taleni was closing in on him. Receiver Terrell Bynum was on the other end of the 29-yard completion.

“The quarterback position, to win championships, you need that position to play well,” Riley said.

Williams wasn’t perfect, however, following his two scoring drives with a couple of successive three-and-outs.

If the disappointing second half was a useful reminder of his youth, his response to it could be viewed as a source of optimism.

“Beginning was solid,” Williams said. “The end, not so solid. Got to get better moving the ball in the second half. That’s always big. Always a new game when you come out there in the second half.”

He didn’t sound panicked, or even slightly concerned.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams, right, talks with coach Lincoln Riley during the Trojans' spring game April 23, 2022.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams, right, talks with coach Lincoln Riley during the Trojans’ spring game Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Williams sounded as if he knew where the Trojans were, and where they were headed.

“It was awesome, coming out here, getting in front of a couple fans, having ESPN and all that, showing the public what we’re going to be, and we’re not even close to what we’re going to be,” he said.

Williams turns 20 in November but carries himself as if he’s significantly older. He is listed as 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds but plays much bigger.

USC is dealing with lack of depth in many positions which will give players experience and the need to step up this upcoming season.

His cool confidence has made other players gravitate toward him and recognize him as their leader.

“He’s that dude,” receiver Brenden Rice said during spring practice.

Williams has embraced that role, aware of what he has to do to change the program’s culture.

“We have a leadership group,” Williams said. “We meet every week or so. One of the biggest things is that elite teams are led by the players, held accountable by the players. Good teams, they’re led by their coaches, held accountable by the coaches. The poor teams, there’s nobody that does that. We’ve been trying to be the elite team.”

The “it” factor that others describe in Williams will be necessary as he shoulders the inflated expectations of a rejuvenated fan base that was beaten down, and often humiliated, over Clay Helton’s tenure.

Less than a year removed from his high school graduation, the old soul with the youthful smile sounds ready to take on that responsibility.