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Caleb Williams' ‘generational talent' shined brightest in games he couldn't save USC

Caleb Williams' ‘generational talent' shined brightest in games he couldn't save USC originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

INDIANAPOLIS -- Caleb Williams' bad games, and even some of his good ones, have been picked apart over the last handful of months as teams, scouts, draft experts, reporters, and fans try to decipher if he should be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft by the Bears.

You've seen the games that have been under the microscope. There was the tough night in South Bend, Ind., against Notre Dame. There was the shootout loss to Washington that led to Williams crying in the stands alongside his mother. There were the two end-of-season losses to Oregon and UCLA in which Williams was constantly under siege behind USC's putrid offensive line.

In those four losses (USC finished the regular season 7-5), Williams completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,186 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions while being sacked 16 times.

They weren't the finest games of Williams' career. But even in games where elite defensive lines hounded him, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner left his opponents amazed by his talents.

"Caleb Williams? Man, I played him in 2021 Alamo Bowl, and he beat us, so there was definitely some animosity there, and I had to get him," Oregon defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus said Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "But he's like a Patrick Mahomes-type player. Extends plays with his feet, does a great job of getting the ball out, has a great arm throwing it deep.

"He's annoying and he's one of those players like Kyler Murray when he's running around in the backfield. Man, I love how he plays."

While Dorlus and Oregon kept Wiliams and USC's offense in check for most of the game -- he completed just 55.9 percent of his passes in the Trojans' 36-27 loss -- Washington had a much tougher time keeping the presumptive No. 1 pick pinned down.

In USC's 52-42 loss to the Huskies, Williams threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, doing everything in his power to help the Trojans spring the upset.

They came up short, but the Huskies left Los Angeles with a concrete sense of Williams' star ability.

"Caleb is a great athlete. Freak athlete," Washington edge rusher Bralen Trice said Wednesday. "He’s a generational talent, I think. He’s one of those quarterbacks that we’re out there praying for– just seeing him out there running around and throwing the ball, it’s like ‘Sheesh, this guy’s good.’"

Huskies linebacker Zion Tupola-Fetui remembers clearly the first time he saw Williams in person. The takeaway? It's special on film, but it's different in person.

"I remember going on the field for our first drive against USC, and me and Bralen kind of looked at each other like -- because you watch the tape and he's an explosive guy, but what we worry about is his change of direction," Tupola-Fetui said. "He always does this little shuffle mid-run, and that's just breaking guys off, or he sees things -- I think he threw a pretty crazy spin move against one of our guys in slow motion in the first quarter.

"His mind is out there like he's really just playing. We came to the sideline after the first drive, and I was like, 'Bralen, you see that?' He was like that, 'What?' I was like, 'His legs, bro.' He was like, 'He's massive. He's built like a bulldog.' He must have a low center of gravity, and his legs back him up in that way. He's an athlete, and he lit us up even though we were able to come out with the win."

UCLA ended Williams' college career with a dominating performance against USC. UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu and the Bruins' defense hounded Williams all day at the Coliseum but still gave up 384 yards through the air as Williams tried to hoist the Trojans on his back to no avail.

Latu has also faced Washington's Michael Penix and Oregon's Bo Nix but said he believes Williams is the best quarterback in the 2024 draft class, given what the USC star was able to do while being battered by the Bruins' relentless pass rush.

“As soon as you beat that first man, you got to be ready for him scramble," Latu said. 'You have to be ready for him to escape the pocket; he does that very well. He’s really tough to get down.”

The story of Williams' career at Oklahoma and USC is one of a transcendent talent who emptied the tank trying to beat the opponent, a leaky offensive line, and his own team's lackluster defense.

Last season, USC ranked 121st nationally in scoring defense. Williams lost eight games in his career at USC, and the Trojans gave up an average of 43 points per game in those losses. Williams is 12-0 in his career in games where USC allowed fewer than 34 points.

It's hard to play quarterback at a high level and not make mistakes when you must constantly chase points and feel like you must hit a home run because your defense can't get off the field.

Even in games where Williams couldn't pull off the hero feat, his talent left an impression on the opponents who got the better of him. His "duds" are seen as ammunition against him by his detractors. But to those who took the field against Williams on those Saturdays, they are perhaps the best argument that the "generational" Williams will be as advertised at the next level.

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