Caleb Williams Might Be Buckling Under The Weight Of His Own Hype
3:09 PM EDT on October 23, 2023
It's been a bad couple weeks for USC and their star quarterback Caleb Williams. After getting dismantled by No. 21 Notre Dame on Oct. 14, the Trojans lost on a walk-off field goal to No. 14 Utah this past weekend. There's plenty of blame to be assigned to head coach Lincoln Riley, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, and USC's weak offensive and defensive lines. But it is Williams, the projected No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft, that is inevitably the face of USC's sudden collapse. Williams hasn't played well in either of his last three games—he's thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions in those games without cracking 300 passing yards in any of them—and the hype train he was meant to ride into the NFL is suddenly starting to wobble a bit.
After winning the Heisman last season, Williams did what every successful college football player should do and parlayed his fame into some lucrative NIL deals that have reportedly earned him almost $3 million. Players earning millions through NIL deals isn't much of a shock, but Williams did cause a bit of a stir this summer when ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio reported that he was looking to get an equity deal with whichever team ends up drafting him. A few months later, he created more of a stir when his father inferred that they would consider "all options" when it came to this year's draft. These are the sorts of things that can cause college football fans and pundits, two groups of people who are always dying to be haters, to perk up and start throwing around the word "overhyped."
Williams has certainly looked overhyped in his last three games. USC needed three overtimes to beat Arizona, and Williams finished that game with his worst completion percentage of the season. His offensive line wasn't great, but he also held the ball too long and made poor decisions. Notre Dame just had their way with USC a week later, pressuring Williams on what felt like every play while goading him into three bad interceptions. During Saturday's loss to Utah, Williams and the offense mostly did their jobs during the first half, but the second half was full of miscues and a lot of red-zone opportunities that ended in field goals or otherwise went nowhere. Williams scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but a missed two-point conversion came back to bite USC when Utah won on a field goal on the next drive. The enduring images to come out of Saturday's loss were those of Williams looking alternately enraged and dejected on the sideline.
Williams has now entered the least desirable phase of any top prospect's college career. Losing to Utah and Notre Dame killed both USC's playoff hopes and Williams's shot at back-to-back Heismans, which means his season, and college career, is more or less over. This leaves everyone with too much time to try and find new things to say about Williams as he sits in limbo, waiting for his NFL career to start. Emmanuel Acho won't be the last annoying pundit to say that Williams should sit out the rest of the season, and Paul Finebaum won't be the last radio blowhard to reject that suggestion while also shitting on Williams's character.
It's certainly possible that Williams has been overhyped as an NFL prospect. I've long held a suspicion that a lot of the excitement around him comes from how much his game resembles that of Patrick Mahomes, including the fact that with helmets on they both look and move exactly alike. And while Mahomes wasn't the college prospect Williams was while at Texas Tech, he was blessed with the advantage of landing in Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy's offense when he was drafted; Williams likely won't be so lucky. He's still a lock to be drafted in the top five even after this run of poor performances, and if there's any silver lining to his recent struggles, it might be found in the easing of expectations. Williams can't stop Finebaum and the others from spending the next few weeks debating what kind of person he is, but he can get back to playing good football and reminding everyone of what he really is, beneath all the noise: a good prospect with a long road ahead of him.