NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah takes a "first look" at some of college football's top players for 2023. This is the second in a series of scouting reports that will run in July.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams is one of the most buzzed about prospects of the past decade, and it's easy to see why.
After bursting onto the scene at Oklahoma as a true freshman in 2021, he followed head coach Lincoln Riley to USC last season and was the top player in the country, leading the Trojans to an 11-3 record -- their best finish since 2017 -- and taking home the Heisman Trophy. Williams set the school single-season marks for total offense (4,919 yards), passing yards (4,537) and touchdowns (52), among his many record-breaking feats, carving up defenses with dual-threat ability that has captured the imaginations of NFL scouts.
It's a tough act to follow -- and he'll be without his top receiver from last season, Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Jordan Addison -- but I can't wait to see what Williams can do with another year of experience in 2023.
Now that I've had a chance to study three of Williams' game tapes from the 2022 season, along with every throw he made when USC was facing third-and-7 or longer, here is my initial scouting report.
Height, weight: 6-foot-1, 220 pounds (school measurements).
2022 statistics (14 games played): 333-of-500 (66.6%) for 4,537 yards, 42 TDs and 5 INTs; 113 carries for 382 yards (3.4 average), 10 TDs.
Game tape watched: vs. Washington State (Oct. 8, 2022), at UCLA (Nov. 19, 2022), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 26, 2022) and every throw on plays of third-and-7-plus.
What I liked: Williams' skill set is vast, and he showed off different elements of his game in every tape I studied. As a thrower, he is incredibly twitched up and can power the ball without grinding his cleats into the ground. He has tremendous upper-body torque, and the ball jumps out of his hand. He is a master in the RPO game. His hands are lightning quick. He can release the ball from different angles to navigate around the unblocked defender (or defenders!).
He's at his best when he goes off the script, escapes and makes plays. Most quarterbacks exhibit some level of panic versus free pass rushers, but Williams sees those moments as playmaking opportunities. He has the lower-body strength to push through tackle attempts and deliver the ball accurately while climbing in the pocket or sprinting to either side of the field. (SEE: throw on the run versus UCLA). He is very elusive when he decides to tuck the ball and run. He's a good decision-maker on zone reads and has an explosive burst to pull away from defenders.
Where he needs to improve: Williams takes unnecessary sacks at times. It's hard to blame him for not giving up on plays, because he's so incredibly creative and productive in those situations. However, there are examples when throwing the ball away is the best option at his disposal. He's a gifted passer on underneath touch throws, drive throws to all three levels and deep throws over the top. The one throw that gives him some trouble is the layer throw. He can be too flat at times on throws where he needs to place the ball over the linebacker and under the safety. I think we'll see him improve in both areas with added reps.
Biggest takeaway: Defenses utilize one of two strategies against Williams: They send exotic blitzes or they rush three and drop eight into coverage. Williams can beat the blitz-happy approach with his ability to avoid and escape. There is nothing more demoralizing for a defense than executing a perfect blitz only to see Williams shake off the pass rusher and create a huge play down the field. When teams drop eight defenders into coverage, he can retreat in the pocket, buy time and fire deep crossers for chunk plays. There really isn't a right answer for how to shut down Williams in Riley's system. It's a joy to watch.
He reminds me of: Patrick Mahomes is going to be the popular comparison for Williams. I can see it. They are both so creative and deliver the ball accurately from different launch points and arm angles. However, from a style and skill set perspective, I think he has more in common with Josh Allen. Obviously, Allen is much taller (6-foot-5), but they are similar athletes as runners and both guys aren't afraid to seek out contact. They possess elite arm strength to power outside shots versus Cover 2. They like to read plays top down, always hunting for the big opportunity. Also, they can take speed off the ball, showing touch on screens and quick hitters. Allen has solidified himself as a top three quarterback in the NFL, and I see that type of upside in Williams.
I can't wait to watch him play: vs. Washington on Nov. 4. The Trojans have a difficult schedule, with big games against Oregon, Notre Dame and Utah. However, the Huskies will be the most talented defense they see this fall. Washington has legit pass rushers, and the USC offensive line isn't necessarily loaded with NFL talent. Williams will need to be on his game to avoid the rush and make plays down field. The Washington offense can easily drop 30-plus points, and that will put even more pressure on Williams to be at his best.