The last four years have been a whirlwind for D.C. native Caleb Williams — going from a young high school quarterback at Gonzaga High to missing a season because of COVID-19 to playing as a freshman at Oklahoma to now being the Heisman Trophy front-runner after transferring to USC.
Williams is one of four finalists for the Heisman Trophy — the honor given to the best college football player in the nation. The award will be handed out Saturday night, but the oddsmakers have Williams, who on Thursday was named The Associated Press college football player of the year, as a heavy favorite. If he wins, Williams will be the first Heisman winner from the Washington area.
“It’s pretty awesome to think that our area has helped produce a Heisman Trophy candidate and possibly a Heisman Trophy winner,” Gonzaga coach Randy Trivers, who coached Williams in high school, told WUSA.
At just 20 years old, Williams put up monstrous numbers this fall at USC — the school he transferred to in order to follow coach and quarterback whisperer Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to the California powerhouse. The 6-foot-1 signal-caller completed 66.1% of his passes for 4,075 yards and 37 touchdowns and added 372 yards and 10 scores with his legs.
“It’s the dual threat that he’s able to be, but also more than that, the flash that he’s able to provide,” analyst Sam Acho said on ESPN. “If I was a Heisman Trophy voter and I’m watching him against UCLA or in prime time against Notre Dame … I’m saying that’s what a Heisman guy looks like.”
Williams was one of the best high school football players in the nation as a junior in 2019 at Gonzaga College High School in the District, totaling 37 touchdowns with his arm and legs. The year before, he led Gonzaga to a championship win over DeMatha Catholic with a Hail Mary as time expired and was named the D.C. Gatorade Football Player of the Year.
Williams is the latest in a long line of notable athletes to come out of Gonzaga — from former Georgetown coach John Thompson III to Super Bowl-winning offensive lineman Roman Oben and Darryl Hill, the first Black man to play for the Naval Academy and in the ACC.
A five-star recruit, Williams was the top quarterback in the 2021 recruiting class, and he picked the school whose coach has a track record of turning college signal-callers into No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft. In his time with the Sooners, Riley helped develop Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into eventual top draft picks as well as Jalen Hurts into a second-round selection.
After a solid freshman campaign in seven starts with Oklahoma, Williams followed Riley to Los Angeles when the coach took the USC job. Riley and Williams have quickly turned around a struggling Trojans program, taking what was a 4-8 team to the brink of the College Football Playoff. USC came up short, losing to Utah in the Pac-12 title game, but the 11-2 campaign and spot in the Cotton Bowl is a marked improvement for one of college football’s preeminent programs.
“Being here with coach Riley and trying to help bring back USC, it’s been a journey, but it’s been more than fun,” Williams said on Fox Sports in November.
Williams is a heavy favorite at -1,600 on FanDuel Sportsbook over the other three quarterback finalists: TCU’s Max Duggan (+1,600), Georgia’s Stetson Bennett (+3,000) and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (+4,000) to be named the Heisman winner Saturday night.
“Caleb Williams has taken his game to a level that I haven’t seen in many years,” Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt said. “I know it’s wild, and he still has a lot of football to play, even just in college. But he’s taken himself into this kind of Patrick Mahomes-style game that is just off the charts. He’s so good outside of the pocket, he’s so good inside of the pocket. And right now, he’s playing with a supreme level of confidence that I haven’t seen since Kyler [Murray].”
Duggan, Bennett and Stroud all led their teams to the College Football Playoff, which starts with the semifinals on Dec. 31. Duggan was not on the radar as a potential Heisman candidate entering the season, but he put up exceptional numbers for the Horned Frogs with 3,321 yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Bennett, meanwhile, doesn’t have the excellent numbers the others do with just 20 passing touchdowns, but he has led Georgia, which won the national title last year, to an undefeated season. And Stroud has led Ohio State to an 11-1 season by completing 66.2% of his passes for 3,340 yards and 37 touchdowns.
No player from the District or Virginia has ever won a Heisman Trophy. The only Maryland native to win the award was Doug Flutie, who was born in Manchester in Carroll County, Maryland, before moving to Florida when he was six, when the Boston College quarterback was crowned the best player in college football in 1984.
Now, Williams seems poised to be the next Mayfield or Murray — two players who also won Heisman trophies — but he’ll have to wait until 2024 to make it to the NFL due to eligibility requirements. There’s no way to know what the NFL draft will look like two years from now, but early 2024 rankings have Williams listed as the top quarterback.
“It’s kind of hard not to notice him,” an anonymous scout told the Los Angeles Times. “He would probably have been the top quarterback prospect last year, and this year he might be the top one as well. So he could be next year.”
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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