LOS ANGELES — Long before he was tap-dancing on the Coliseum court last Saturday, dodging, diving and rushing through defenders like no other USC quarterback has ever done, Caleb Williams was already a master in the art of escape.
The skills that would one day make him a scrambled scholar were born largely out of necessity. Growing up, Williams regularly played with older children. The cousins he often saw were older. His childhood best friends – Gary, Michael, Malik and DJ, to name a few – were older. Most were much bigger too.
“They were huge,” the USC sophomore quarterback recalled over the summer. And they in no way made it easy for the smallest and youngest child in their crew. So Williams had to get creative.
Its size wouldn’t matter, he quickly learned, if it couldn’t be caught.
“It’s always been one of my things,” Williams said Wednesday. “Once I got it, I kind of ducked – ducked under the legs, something like that. I was kind of proud of it when I was younger. Now I was just trying to go out there and win the game and play for the best I can. Whatever it takes, that’s what it’s going to take for me.
It took a series of stunning escapes from Williams last week before the Trojans finally cruised past Arizona State to secure a 42-25 victory. During a first down third, Williams threw a charged defender over his shoulder, before nearly knocking another out of his shoes. Later, Williams took off, faked a push-up to shake off a Sun Devil, passed another, then stopped a dime along the sideline to avoid a third.
“I feel like it’s just his will to make the play,” receiver Jordan Addison said. “He wants to do whatever he can to get the first down or score a touchdown.”
Running back Travis Dye has a different view.
“It’s black magic,” Dye joked last Saturday. “I turn around, it looks like he’s about to be sacked and all of a sudden he’s out Houdinis, and we’ve got a 20-yard gain.”
You could argue that Williams has resorted to sorcery a little too often in recent weeks as he has faced a constant siege in the pocket. The quarterback was pressured on 19 of 44 retirements (43%) in USC’s narrow victory over Oregon State, before facing 17 pressures of 43 retirements (40%) against Arizona State.
The main difference, on paper, between the two performances was Williams’ ability to handle the added pressure from Arizona State. After completing just five of 13 passes with a compromised pocket to Corvallis, Williams was a stellar nine of 13 for 120 yards under the same circumstances last Saturday. Two of his three touchdown passes came while jostling, with Sun Devils defensemen 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 if the pocket is clean all day. That’s good. But I mean, in modern college football, that doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t happen that much in the pros either. That’s why you see an influx of guys who give you that ability and can make things happen.
“For him – as an OC, as a head coach – yeah, you want everything to be clean and perfect all the time. But as a quarterback coach you have to make the plays that are the.”
Few passers, if any, have made those plays quite like Williams this season. No quarterback in college football has created more time to throw under pressure (4.5 seconds), and only one in the last five years (Liberty’s Malik Willis) has managed to extend pressure plays longer. The next closest this season among Power Five quarterbacks is Washington State’s Cam Ward, who is two-tenths of a second behind Williams at 4.3 seconds.
It’s rare, even with that extra time, that Williams finds himself in a rush.
“You don’t want to let someone make you feel rushed,” Williams said. “You don’t want any of that. You go through your progressions, and if you feel anything, you get up, you get out. You get up and deliver, you get out and you run.”
And if you’re a wide receiver, you keep your eyes peeled.
“We fight all the time because with him he can get away with anything,” tight end Malcolm Epps said. “There were a few games where I was like, ‘Damn, he got sacked. Oh, we’re still running. It was one of those. So with him, you gotta keep going or you risk missing a game.”
With each passing week, extraordinary escapes have become almost commonplace for his teammates.
“You kind of get numb to it after a while,” joked left guard Andrew Vorhees. “For us, it’s Caleb. We see him all day, every day.”
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