Caleb Williams ready to face pressure head-on as USC attempts to engineer a historic turnaround in one year

LOS ANGELES — Caleb Williams was made for this moment. It goes beyond the promise, the responsibility, the absolute understanding of his new football life in the country’s second largest media market.

His understanding of his place in the SoCal landscape comes through the moment he shakes your hand. It’s more than a shake; he grabs your hand and holds it for a moment to ensure eye contact is maintained.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” USC’s quarterback told a stranger who introduced himself.

Perhaps too much of the force of gravity is being made that moment, but the bottom line is that Williams made it his moment. He controlled the exchange in those brief seconds. A small sample size, yes, but it suggests the Oklahoma transfer has a mindset that will help him control his future surroundings as well.

Williams, coach Lincoln Riley and a host of other USC transfers enter this season with noise. Whether they like it or not, they all joined the program to win right away.

“I don’t know what a honeymoon looks like,” Riley said. “I didn’t get one right away. I don’t expect to have one here.”

If USC wins big enough, it will be historic. Going from 4-8 — the program’s worst record in 31 years — to a Pac-12 championship would mark one of the biggest turnarounds in the game’s history.

Hawaii went from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in 1999, an 8.5-game improvement that remains the NCAA record for a one-year turnaround. We’re talking about the Trojans attempting something on that scale given how far down they were last season and how high their dreams are this season.

“I think, with the coaching, that USC definitely has a chance to be a title winner,” said June Jones, coach of that Hawaii team. “The most important thing to me is the quarterback that transferred with the coach.”

Riley’s rotation of the roster would have been less remarkable had not Williams kind of led the way. He didn’t decide to leave Oklahoma for USC until late January, shortly before the semester started. But with Williams in hand, the transfer migration was legitimate and historic. About half of USC’s 85 scholarship players are new.

“The deciding factor for me was actually how familiar I was with all the people that came here,” Williams said. “Coaching staff, nutritionists, everybody knows Coach Riley. I was very familiar with their families. Very close. I didn’t want to feel like a freshman going to a new place, having to learn a new offense. I, for sure, didn’t want to go to a new school to be in that position … I wanted to continue to develop.”

In its history, USC is usually USC when it has a four-start quarterback. The top six passers in program history have combined for two Heisman trophies, a pair of national championships and at least a share of six Pac-12 titles.

Where Williams falls on that list is to be determined. Despite all the hype surrounding him, the sophomore has started seven games. Oklahoma fans called for him mainly because he was not it Spencer Rattler. 247Sports had him ranked eighth overall in the 2021 class, second among quarterbacks.

It turned out that Williams, as a freshman, could play. In his short time leading the team, he threw 21 touchdowns and rushed for 442 yards. Still, in the last four games, either defenses started to figure him out or Williams hit a wall. Maybe a bit of both. He completed just 57% of his passes and threw three of his four interceptions over the four contests.

“Caleb has played half a season of college football,” Riley warned. “He played at a big university under a lot of scrutiny, played in some big games and big moments. That’s certainly going to help him. It’s not a question of him being ready for this moment.”

Williams will not be assaulted. Nor will USC to a greater extent. A college athlete of Williams’ stature has not shrunk from the spotlight. A team, a school, a city and a sport are watching.

“USC is a blue blood; simple as that,” Williams said. “Teams and organizations, they’ve struggled moments. We’re here trying to turn that around.”

He wants a lot of help. Oregon transfer Travis Dye is a plug-and-play running back. Wide receiver Mario Williams followed the quarterback from Oklahoma. Pittsburgh transfer WR Jordan Addison caused the biggest upheaval of the offseason — besides Riley’s hiring — when he transferred to USC following allegations that he was “bought” with name, image and similar means.

“He came NIL anyway,” Williams said. “We had to joke about it. It was $2 million-$3 million that was out there for him. I was like, ‘What the hell?’

When Williams answered questions with teammate Shane Lee at Pac-12 Media Days last month, it was a supremely Hollywood setting. Given USC’s position in this city, the scene had a “Meet The Beatles” feel to it. It was the first time many of the local and national media interviewed the couple.

They answered each question with thought and depth, pausing only in arrogance.

“You don’t come to USC and you don’t come to Los Angeles to do little things,” Riley added. “You have to aim big.”

There sat two guys who had transferred from the blue bloods themselves. Oklahoma and Alabama, respectively, are in better shape than USC in 2022 even without Williams and Lee. Both look like they could go right in. Williams completed his first nine passes of the spring game. Lee started as a freshman in 2019, but started just five games overall this past season, in part due to injury.

Like their coach, they are betting on themselves, choosing the West Coast’s opportunities over the statistics of championship contention.

“I know Shane’s not a loser,” Williams said. “I know I’m not a loser. The guys around here aren’t losers. They want to win. They’ve been hungry. They’ve changed their bodies and their minds.”

That’s part of the truth of USC in 2022. It has to be tougher. The student group Høyre og Venstre’s days are over, but not what they left behind: the tradition of toughness. As much as Pete Carroll’s teams were offensive machines, the defense was always physical. From 2008-11 — basically the tail end of the Carroll dynasty — USC averaged 4.75 defensemen in the draft per year.

Since 2012, the number has been two. In 2020, USC did not draft a defensive player for the first time since at least the debut of two-platoon football in 1964.

“You look at the trophies … and you think, ‘This is SC,”’ Lee said. “It’s the same at Alabama. It’s the same in Oklahoma. … That’s why I went to Alabama — to see if I matched. It is discipline. It’s effort. It is the heart. There’s no real magic in it.”

Conference hopes have gone from improving the Pac-12 through USC’s excellence to enduring a long, sad goodbye. USC needs to move forward and take a look at assimilating into the Big Ten. Williams and Lee will likely be gone by 2024, but it’s this season’s team that will lay the foundation for all of that.

It has been a pleasure for LA to meet Team Transfer. Now the handshake is over. USC must win. Big.

“It’s great, but when it happens,” Williams said of a turnaround, “nothing is going to be a surprise.”

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