Will USC’s Caleb Williams or Lincoln Riley jump to the NFL first?


Let the NFL countdown begin.

Let the NFL countdown begin.
Image: Getty Images

To the surprise of very few college football fans, Caleb Williams lifted the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night. The USC quarterback finished with 4,075 yards, 47 total touchdowns, and just four interceptions, all while leading his team to within a win of the College Football Playoff. Of all the quarterbacks Lincoln Riley has coached, Williams is the most complete prospect.

He’s taller than Kyler Murray, possesses a stronger arm than Baker Mayfield, and is already a better passer than Jalen Hurts. Whatever you call a football version of gym rat, that’s Williams. There were only a few occasions during his freshman season at Oklahoma when he struggled, and any questions about whether the Kansas or Iowa State games were indications or aberrations were answered in the way the QB handled bad games during his sophomore season at Southern Cal.

His two worst outings of the 2022 season were wins over Washington State and Oregon State. Mistake-free football and an opportunistic defense keyed a worry-free victory over the Cougars, and when the Trojans needed Williams the most in Corvallis, he delivered a clutch drive that ended with a beautiful ball to Jordan Addison for the game-winning score.

The USC defense made a lot of plays when they had to, getting big takeaways throughout the season, but it was the offense that constantly responded to pressure. One of the hardest things to do at any level of football is repeatedly win with the offense carrying the defense. Tennessee had an explosive group, and still got shut down by Georgia and couldn’t keep up with South Carolina. Even if Hendon Hooker avoids injury, the Gamecocks win that game going away.

The only time USC got beat handedly was when Williams popped his hamstring and operated on one leg for the majority of the night. Even severely hampered, he still had the Trojans within three in the fourth quarter of that game and threw for 350-plus with three scores to one pick.

Southern Cal now has the most Heisman winners in the history of college football at eight (because I include Reggie Bush), and Williams was as dynamic as any of those past greats. He had four games with four or five TDs and no picks, and every one of them was against a Pac-12 team. He had 500 yards of offense by himself against UCLA in the Rose Bowl. He was as perfect as any football player could be against Notre Dame, struck the Heisman pose, and no one said shit because we all agreed.

Congrats, well deserved.

The clock is officially ticking on Lincoln Riley to the NFL

If Williams’ second season is what it looks like when Riley can mold an ideal prospect — physical and mental skills all accounted for — the Trojans better hope gets a title out of their new hire before the coach joins Williams in a jump to the NFL after next season.

The Heisman whisperer has now coached three different winners in his first six years as a head coach. Only Nick Saban and Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy have produced more recipients of college football’s most prestigious honor. Even though Alabama had three Heisman winners in six seasons, too, only one of them was a quarterback.

Two of Riley’s three signal callers have been selected No. 1 overall, and the other is Hurts. You can put Spencer Rattler on Riley if you want, but he still won nine games in Rattler’s first year as a starter, and was quick to pivot when Williams was clearly the guy.

Say what you will of Murray and Mayfield’s shortcomings, they entered the league as prepared as any prospect. Both topped 3,700 yards in their rookie seasons, and threw for 20 or more touchdowns. It looked like Hurts was on his way to the XFL before transferring to OU and lighting up college football during his senior year.

The magic that Riley works with his quarterbacks is the Holy Grail for any number of NFL teams who’ve spent a frightening amount of money and draft capital on QBs and coaches who could get the best out of them only, to end up back where they started in three to five years. Look at Mike McDaniel in Miami. If front offices knew that he could take Tua Tagovailoa from borderline bust to league-leading passer, they would have been courting him like Sean Payton.

More and more organizations are willing to take a chance on a college coach. Kliff Kiingsbury is about to follow Matt Rhule out of a job, and the fact someone on their way to being a coordinator at USC, or the head coach of Baylor, could be entrusted with an NFL team tells me a GM will stake their job — and a fuck ton of the owner’s money — on Riley being a home-run hire.

Say Deshaun Watson can’t regain his previous form under the guidance of Kevin Stefanski, why not let God’s gift to quarterbacks take a shot at reviving a five-tool prospect? That’s the kind of shrewd thinking the Browns needed before they gave their soul to Satan — and gave him $230 million.

Off topic, off topic. Let’s bring it full circle. As good of a pro prospect as Caleb Williams is — and he’s no doubt going to be the first overall pick in 2024 barring injury— Lincoln Riley will be an even bigger prize. No position in sports matters more than the quarterback, and if every QB you touch gets cast into bronze, you’re worth a whole lot of gold. 

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