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For Heisman winner Caleb Williams and USC, ‘last year wasn’t good enough’

USC quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Jake Jensen warm up during a spring practice session at Howard Jones Field.
USC quarterbacks Caleb Williams, left, and Jake Jensen warm up during a spring practice session at Howard Jones Field on Wednesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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The bronze trophy sits in the same spot on his dining room table, a reminder of the high bar he set in his first season at USC. And in the three whirlwind months since he first hoisted his Heisman, becoming the eighth Trojan to earn the honor, Caleb Williams has had plenty of time to consider how his encore might surpass it.

For one, his plans involve making more room on the table.

“Gonna have two of them soon!” Williams said Wednesday when asked where his Heisman was, a grin spreading across his face.

Only one player in college football history has managed to hoist the Heisman a second time — Ohio State’s Archie Griffin — and his second win came nearly 50 years ago. The odds of being the second to repeat are stacked against USC’s junior quarterback, and his coach, Lincoln Riley has made clear he and Williams haven’t spent much time, if any, talking about it.

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“We probably haven’t talked about it since the day he won it,” Riley said.

But with a giant, bronze reminder peering up at him every morning, Williams has considered the possibility as he planned his goals for the upcoming season.

USC’s star quarterback finally sat down to make those plans official Wednesday, copying down his goals to a note affixed to his phone’s home screen. Most of the goals, he said, focused on being more consistent or being more efficient.

USC coach Lincoln Riley opens spring football practice pushing to build upon what he started a year ago, with an emphasis on bolstering the defense.

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“I want to be better than I was last year,” Williams said. “There were things I could’ve done better last year that I’m trying to do now. There’s a lot more that I know. I just want to be the best.”

It definitely won’t be easy to improve on a stellar sophomore campaign that ranked not only as the best in college football last season but also perhaps the best in USC history. Williams set school records for yards passing (4,537), total touchdowns (52), touchdowns passing (42), yards rushing by a quarterback (382) and touchdowns rushing by a quarterback (10). The Trojans went 11-3 and won the Pac-12.

But when Williams sat down to consider where he could improve, he kept coming back to efficiency.

“If I’m more efficient, the more touchdowns, the more yards I’ll have,” Williams said.

Riley had two previous Heisman-winning quarterbacks when he coached at Oklahoma, but he has never had one return to school.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams and backup Miller Moss warm up during a spring practice session.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) and backup Miller Moss (7) warm up during a spring practice session at Howard Jones Field on Wednesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The coach has tried to find other areas in which to challenge Williams, making it clear to his quarterback that he needs to make “drastic improvements” to reach some of the lofty goals he has set for himself and the team, which fell short of reaching the College Football Playoff and lost to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.

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“That’s kind of been our deal the whole offseason, is last year wasn’t good enough,” Riley said. “If we play and coach like we did last year, then that’s not what this team needs and not at all what we expect. … We’ve really been able to push him here the last month, and we’re going to obviously push him hard and expect a lot out of him here in spring ball both as a player and as a leader.”

For Williams, that has meant taking on more of a mentorship role this spring, helping five-star freshman Malachi Nelson learn the ropes. It doesn’t hurt that he has known Nelson from years on the camp circuit. Their fathers talk regularly too, sharing strategies of helping their star quarterback sons succeed.

“It’s a new role for me which is awesome and something I’m taking on full steam,” Williams said.

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He has plenty of other new additions to get used to this spring. His receiving corps has been rebuilt, with transfer Dorian Singer taking on a leading role and two talented freshmen joining the mix in Zach Branch and Makai Lemon.

Branch especially has made an early impression on USC’s coaches. Williams called the 5-foot-10 standout from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman “an explosive little dude.”

“That dude from a talent standpoint is special,” receivers coach Dennis Simmons said.

The offensive line also is breaking in two transfers, while Justin Dedich moves over to center, giving Williams a new snapper.

There will be plenty of time to iron out the kinks that come from those changes. As Williams embarks on his second spring at USC, his sights are set on raising the bar again.

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