Long before he was stepping across Coliseum field last Saturday, dodging, diving and shooting through defenders like no other USC quarterback ever did, Caleb Williams was already a master of the escape art.
The skills that would one day make him a scholar were largely born out of necessity. Growing up, Williams played regularly with older children. The cousins he saw often were older. His childhood best friends – Gary, Michael, Malik and DJ to name a few – were older. Most were also much larger.
“They were huge,” USC’s second quarterback recalled over the summer. And they weren’t making it easy for the smaller, younger kid on their crew by any means. So Williams had to get creative.
His size wouldn’t matter, he quickly learned, if he couldn’t be caught.
“It was always one of my things,” Williams said on Wednesday. “As soon as I had it, I kind of ducked under — ducked under the legs, like that. When I was younger I was a bit proud of it. Now I’m just trying to go out there and win the game and play to the best of my ability. Whatever it takes is what it takes for me.”
It took a series of stunning escapes from Williams over the past week before the Trojans finally sped past Arizona State to secure a 42-25 win. During an early third down, Williams tossed an attacking defender over his shoulder before almost ripping another out of his shoes. Williams later took off, pumped forward to shake a Sun Devil, spun past another, then stopped on the sidelines on a dime to avoid a third.
“I turn around, he looks like he’s about to be sacked and all of a sudden he’s out Houdinis and we have a 20-yard gain.”
— USC running back Travis Dye on Caleb Williams escaping defenders
“I feel like it’s just his will to make the game,” receiver Jordan Addison said. “He wants to do anything to get first place or a touchdown.”
Running back Travis Dye sees it differently.
“It’s black magic,” Dye joked last Saturday. “I turn around, he looks like he’s about to be sacked and all of a sudden he’s out Houdinis and we have a 20-yard gain.”
It could be argued that Williams has resorted to witchcraft a little too often in recent weeks as he’s been under a constant siege in the pocket. The quarterback was pressured on 19 of 44 dropbacks (43%) in USC’s narrow win over Oregon State before pressured on 17 of 43 dropbacks (40%) against Arizona State.
On paper, the main difference between the two performances was how well Williams still managed to resist the added pressure from Arizona State. After completing just five of 13 passes with a compromised pocket at Corvallis, Williams was an outstanding nine of 13 for 120 yards under the same circumstances last Saturday. Two of his three touchdown passes came while scrambling, with Sun Devils defenders chasing him.
When asked if he was worried about how often Williams was on the run, USC coach Lincoln Riley shook his head.
“That’s the kind of player he is,” Riley said. “It’s great when the bag is clean all day. It’s good. But I mean, in modern college football, that doesn’t happen very often. Not much happens with the pros either. That’s why you see an influx of guys who can give you that ability and make things happen.
“For him – as OK, as a head coach – yes, you always want to see everything clean and perfect. But as a quarterback coach, you have to make the plays that are there.”
Few, if any, passers have made the plays Williams did this season. No quarterback in college football has more time to throw under pressure (4.5 seconds), and only one in the last five years (Liberty’s Malik Willis) has managed to stretch pressure plays longer. Next closest among the Power Five quarterbacks this season is Washington State’s Cam Ward, who is a full two-tenths of a second behind Williams at 4.3 seconds.
Even with that extra time, it’s rare that Williams is in a hurry.
“You shouldn’t let anyone feel rushed,” Williams said. “You don’t want any of this. You go through your progressions, and when you feel something, you get up, get out. You get up and deliver, you get out and run.”
And if you’re a pass catcher, keep your eyes peeled.
“We fight all the time because he can get away from anything with him,” said tight end Malcolm Epps. “There were a couple of plays where I was like, ‘Damn, he got fired. Oh, we’re still walking.’ It was one of them. So you have to keep going with him or you might miss a track.”
With each passing week, the extraordinary escapes become almost commonplace for his teammates.
“After a while you kind of get desensitized,” joked left guard Andrew Vorhees. “For us, it’s Caleb. We see it all day, every day.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-10-07/caleb-williams-usc-running-escape-washington-state Caleb Williams building a reputation as USC’s football Houdini