What to make of Caleb Williams' performance in loss to Notre Dame

2T26P4A SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 14: USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) runs the ball for a gain during the college football game between the USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish on October 14, 2023, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

• No longer QB1? While some have raised concerns after Williams' shaky effort against Notre Dame, he can do things no other quarterback can and remains QB1 on the PFF big board.

• Williams is still figuring things out: A high time to throw average plagues Williams at times, and Notre Dame punished him for it.

• Try PFF's Mock Draft Simulator: Trade picks and players and mock for your favorite NFL team.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

A week ago, USC quarterback Caleb Williams was seen as nearly flawless, a walking work of art within the beautiful game of football, hand-crafted by the gods for the sole purpose of gracing an NFL franchise with his generational talent, unmatched in his impact.

A week later, he might not even be QB1.

Dramatics aside, Williams has put together one of the most captivating college football careers over the past few decades. He was a high-profile recruit who, as just a true freshman at Oklahoma, took over for a struggling Spencer Rattler (who was also supposed to be a generational-type quarterback) and looked way too good to be a player fresh out of high school. The following season, he won a Heisman Trophy as the best player in the country, and he entered 2023 as the odds-on favorite to hold that distinction once more.

But observing a player through the lens of college football enjoyment and evaluating them through the microscope of the NFL draft can, at times, reveal two very different images.

We’ve seen plenty of good over the years, but what do we make of Williams now following his team’s 48-20 loss to Notre Dame in Week 7? The third-year quarterback’s 49.2 passing grade in that game was the second-lowest single-game passing grade of his career, and his four turnover-worthy plays were his most in a single game.

Williams' play under pressure has captivated the college football world over the past two seasons — and elevated his renown into that of a future No. 1 overall pick. In 2022, he was on a level of his own when it came to avoiding pressure in the pocket and making plays out of structure. He earned a 79.7 passing grade under pressure with 14 big-time throws and just four turnover-worthy plays (14 touchdowns and zero interceptions). This season, when pressured, he sports a 28.3 passing grade with just two big-time throws and 13 turnover-worthy plays.

The Notre Dame game was his worst outing in those categories, with all four of his turnover-worthy plays coming when pressured.

Williams has gone from being the top-ranked passer under pressure in the FBS in 2022 to the 175th-ranked passer under pressure in the FBS — or the fifth worst — in 2023.

So what do we make of this? Is Williams not the player we once believed he was?

Williams’ struggles under pressure this season show us he’s not perfect, but perfect was a silly bar to hold him to. However, his recent lack of success, even in an area where he was so successful before, doesn't mean he’s no longer a top choice (or even the choice) for the top pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Williams may be known for his Sportscenter-worthy plays when he starts to scramble, but his performance in situations that are more “normal” is still excellent. When kept free from pressure, Williams boasts an elite 93.2 passing grade. This isn't a new concept — a quarterback's passing grades from clean pockets are almost always higher compared to those when pressured. But Williams’ grade from clean pockets isn’t just high; it’s the fifth best in the FBS. That's what NFL-level arm strength and ball placement skills can do.

Now, an honest critique of Williams’ game is that he holds onto the ball for too long. On throws five or more yards down the field (to eliminate schemed-up quick throws like screens) in 2023, Williams’ average time to throw is 3.21 seconds. That is the highest mark of any of the quarterbacks featured on PFF's 2024 big board. In fact, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy is the only other quarterback on that list with an average time to throw above 3.0 seconds (3.02).

From clean pockets, Williams’ time to throw falls to 2.86 seconds, but it is still the highest among the group. His time to throw was even higher in 2022, at 3.44 seconds.

His time-to-throw numbers over the past two seasons would be the highest among all first-round quarterbacks since 2018 — above 2022 Kenny Pickett (3.10), 2022 Anthony Richardson (3.10), 2022 Bryce Young (2.96), 2019 Joe Burrow (2.92), 2022 C.J. Stroud (2.91), 2019 Trevor Lawrence (2.91) and, yes, even 2019 Zach Wilson (2.78).

The only quarterback even close to Williams’ figures was 2019 Jalen Hurts (3.36). In the NFL this year, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts and Russell Wilson are the only starting quarterbacks above three seconds, and the only one last year was Justin Fields.

Williams’ nickname is Superman. For most of his career, it felt very appropriate. He could do things that no one else in the country could in a way that saved the day for his team time and time again. Even after the Notre Dame outing, he is still that caliber of a player. He c. But knowing what you can get away with is important for any quarterback, and that includes how long one holds onto the ball before making a play.

For the first time, it feels like Williams is really learning that lesson.

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