Quarterback Caleb Williams has worked in spring practice to take fewer snaps and wait for the game to develop.
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The mysterious moment when Caleb Williams announced his arrival to college football came last October during the fourth run. Already behind Texas 28-7, Oklahoma was at its own 34-yard line, desperate for some kind of spark. Then, on fourth-and-one, Lincoln sent his freshman Riley in and asked him to make a play with his legs.
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Those kinds of plays seemed to come naturally to Williams, who spent his youth football days as a quarterback before becoming the top dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2021. But within a second of the snap, the gap in front of him collapsed.
Three defenders from Texas surrounded Williams in the backfield, but the freshman was patient. He suddenly turned left, deftly slicing away from one, then swinging right, swinging away from the other. When he jumped free, the Texas defense split for him. Williams went on a 66-yard touchdown run and never looked back, ultimately leading Oklahoma to a dramatic comeback that would solidify its position atop the Sooners’ offense.
It was that superior ability that catapulted Williams to stardom last season as he followed in the footsteps of other dual-threat quarterbacks who came before him in Riley’s offense, such as Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts.
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At USC, where Williams now lives, however, there is no such precedent. As the modern dual-threat quarterback has become commonplace in college football, USC has continued its parade of pocket pass rushers.
Not since the 1991 season, when Reggie Perry held the reins, have the Trojans entrusted their offense to a quarterback that could be classified as a dual threat. That season ended in disaster as Perry threw three touchdowns with 12 interceptions and USC won just three games. Perry eventually went to safety after the season.
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The program’s history for Perry isn’t rich with in-state quarterbacks, either. Rodney Peete, who led the Trojans from 1985 to 1988, has 290 rushing attempts, the most by a USC player, but only 415 field goal attempts. Pat Haden had 514 yards in three seasons at quarterback before turning the offense over to Vince Evans, who finished with 533.
No modern USC passer has ever rushed for 300 yards in a season. Pete Beathard came next from 1961 to 1962, which remains the Trojans’ most prolific interim record. Beathard amassed 290 yards on the ground in both seasons and finished his three-year career with 672 and 14 touchdowns.
Williams is almost certain to break that statistical mark as a second. Few college quarterbacks were more dynamic than ball handlers last season, when Williams racked up 435 rushing yards and six touchdowns with a breathtaking combination of speed and brute strength.
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“He was able to break some tackles early in his career and make some guys miss, which usually happens when a quarterback comes out, there can be a lot of space, there are opportunities for big plays,” Riley said. “For a quarterback, he’s got pretty good top speed. We had some long runs for us last year, explosive runs. He’s a tough guy to account for defensively. Having a guy with him is one thing, but sometimes it’s a little bit harder to catch him down.”
Taking sacks out of the equation, no quarterback in college rushed for more yards per attempt last season (8.7) than Williams. Nine of his technical runs went for 15 yards or more. Six of them went more than 40 yards.
Many of his best runs, like the 66-yarder against Texas, came after touchdowns. He forced 22 fumbles, according to Pro Football Focus, and averaged 4.95 yards per attempt after contact. Only two other quarterbacks accomplished that feat last season. One of them, Liberty’s Malik Willis, is expected to be the top running back selected in this month’s NFL draft.
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“When you have a guy who can hustle like him and can throw up and run and move the chains with his feet when things break, or sometimes everybody’s covered and you don’t like the read and it creates some space there and you take the ball away from runs, that’s very hard for defenses to do,” USC offensive coordinator Josh Henson said.
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In five seasons at Oklahoma, that density played a big role in Riley’s offense. Running backs averaged 143 rushing attempts per season during that span.
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Even Baker Mayfield, who could hardly be classified as a dual threat, rushed 97 times for 311 yards in Riley’s first season as coach. At USC, that performance would have secured him as the season’s most productive quarterback.
That title is almost certain for Williams after his second season. This spring, the quarterback is focused on running less, instead of more.
Looking back on his first season, Williams said he realized there were moments where “I was too quick to catch up.”
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“I started practicing it last year especially, sitting in the pocket a little more, trusting the guys covering me because that’s their job and I believe in them, I trust them,” Williams said.
As Riley sees it, the instinct to rely less on his legs is the next good step in his development.
“I don’t want to take advantage of those guys, but if people’s plan when Caleb plays is to try to keep him in the pocket, he should be able to beat him,” Riley said. “And he’s absolutely capable of overcoming that. That’s always part of a young quarterback’s progress. Most guys are learning more and more when to hang in there and when not to. He feels it, he pushes for it.”
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That could mean fewer scrimmages this fall, but for USC, a quarterback who can catch at all will take some getting used to.
Ryan Kartje is a Los Angeles Times USC staff writer. He joined The Times after six years at the Southern California News Group. A Michigan native and University of Michigan graduate, Kartje previously wrote for Fox Sports Wisconsin and the Bloomington (Ind.) Herald-Times. Our fitness staff also offers online training, fitness discussions and other resources through our USC Trojan Fitness channel.
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