College News & Analysis

“I want to destroy you”: Caleb Williams is coming for much more than a second Heisman Trophy

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Caleb Williams doesn’t get tense…except for that one December night in New York.

At the Heisman Trophy ceremony, the USC signal-caller was seen as the clear favorite to take home one of the most distinguished individual awards in sports. He led all quarterbacks in the country last season with 42 touchdown passes and was second in the Power Five in grade (91.6), passing yards (4,539) and big-time throws (32). Even so, the sophomore couldn’t help but feel butterflies in his stomach.

“I never get nervous, and honestly, I was fine when I was sitting down,” Williams said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “But then they started joking around and I could feel my heart starting to race a little bit. I’ve been through this long weekend and these early mornings and I was like, ‘Can you please just call the name?’”

Williams’ nerves were finally calmed as he was announced as the winner of the Heisman trophy, a pretty surreal feeling for the 21-year-old.

“It was a cool moment, to say the least,” Williams said. “There are billions of people on this planet and only 87 humans can say that they’ve won a Heisman.”

Before he became USC’s third quarterback to take home the coveted stiff-arm trophy (Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart), Williams first needed to figure out if he wanted to call Los Angeles home. As a true freshman at Oklahoma in 2021, the former five-star recruit took over the starting job from preseason Heisman-favorite Spencer Rattler after six games. Williams proceeded to post a 91.3 grade that season, eighth among all quarterbacks in the country and the highest PFF has ever seen from a true freshman signal-caller. 

Highest-graded true freshman quarterbacks in the PFF College era (Since 2014)
Name School Season Grade
Caleb Williams Oklahoma 2021 91.3
Trevor Lawrence Clemson 2018 90.7

After the season, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley left the Sooners to take over at USC, leading Williams to enter the transfer portal, where he had no shortage of suitors. 

“I looked at Wisconsin, LSU and Michigan,” Williams said. “I actually took a visit to UCLA, too.”

Ultimately, Williams once again committed to Riley, the same head coach that he committed to coming out of high school in Washington, D.C.

“Coach Riley’s a great coach and an even better human being,” Williams said. “He gives you someone to look up to. He really builds a brotherhood with his quarterbacks. You can go look at his history and history tends to repeat itself.”

Riley has quite the track record with quarterbacks since becoming a head coach in 2017. His starter in 2019, Jalen Hurts, was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy that season and just led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl. He also has had three Heisman winners under center in Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and now Williams.

Both Mayfield and Murray went on to become No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts, a feat that Williams seems poised to accomplish in 2024. However, he’s not even eyeing his NFL future yet.

“It’s a goal of mine to go number one just like it was a goal of mine to win the Heisman Trophy,” Williams said. “But I wouldn’t say that I’m focused on either of those things. I don’t even know if I’m declaring after this season because there are so many things in college that I haven’t accomplished yet.” 

While Williams achieved college football’s highest individual honor — the Heisman — the only trophies he cares about are championships. Even during his Heisman speech, Williams pointed out how he’d much rather be in the other finalists’ shoes.

Keeping Williams from the playoff this past season was ultimately Utah, as the Utes were responsible for USC’s only two losses heading into bowl season. If the Trojans had won their regular season matchup or the Pac-12 championship, they would’ve likely been in the College Football Playoff over Ohio State. Even though USC faces Utah again this season on October 21st, Williams is solely focused on the bigger picture.

“I’m circling every game on our schedule,” Williams said. “It bothers me a lot that I’m heading into my third season, and I haven’t been to the playoff yet. I felt like I was one game away both years, and this year, I felt like I was 10 seconds away. You can see how much pain I’m in, and I’m not talking about physical pain. I want to get to the playoff and win a national championship. That’s the reason why I play football; I don’t care about the other stuff. I want to go out there, compete and dominate.”

Williams also understands that winning is the tide that raises all ships when it comes to reaching the NFL, pointing to a recent national champion as the blueprint.

“You look at that 2019 LSU team,” he said. “They went undefeated and won the national championship. Obviously, Joe Burrow went first in that draft, but everybody got drafted. That’s what I want. Winning doesn’t only help myself, but it helps my other teammates get drafted and up their stock.”

Not only does Williams have the pressure of leading USC back to the promised land, but he also has the added weight of living up to the comparisons he’s received. The most notable one is to two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion, Patrick Mahomes.

“I’d say in some ways, yeah we’re similar,” Williams said. “I’d say in other ways I do things differently than him. Maybe I’m faster or stronger, and maybe he can throw farther. I watch guys like him and Aaron Rodgers and take things from them because when I get to that level, I’ll possibly be better than they are.”

While he’s solely focused on this upcoming season, Williams couldn’t help but reveal to People Magazine that he’d love to play for the Miami Dolphins. When I asked why he’d like to play in South Beach, Williams put it bluntly.

“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” Williams said. “They have two of the fastest players in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Plus, I want to play for a young coach and Mike McDaniel is a cool guy from when I met him a couple times.”

Williams possesses all of the athletic tools to excel when he gets to that level, but what truly makes him special is his mentality.

“I want to destroy you,” Williams said. “I want to make you as small as a pauper to the best of my ability when I play against you. Whether it’s football, dodgeball, basketball, lifting weights, it doesn’t matter. I’m always competing.”

He then laughed before revealing how truly deep his competitive fire burns.

“I have to sign cards and helmets sometimes,” Williams said. “I’m even competing with the person handing me the helmets. I’m trying to beat him before he can hand me the next thing to sign.”

Williams now has an opportunity to do something that only former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin accomplished: win a second Heisman Trophy.

“I told Archie I’d see him in New York again,” Williams said. “Hopefully, I can join him.”

If Williams does make it back to the Big Apple, it’d probably be best for him to work on some breathing exercises while the jokes are cracked onstage.

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