On Wednesday, reports surfaced that Caleb Williams’ father talked about how the NFL system is architected in a manner that doesn’t incentivize the best prospects to be set up for success. The fact that top prospects get drafted to the worst teams, who more often than not are at the bottom of NFL rankings in talent, management, and culture, is detrimental to the potential of those great, young prodigies.
The insinuation of course was, if Team Caleb wasn’t pleased with the team holding the #1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, that the reigning Heisman winner would follow in the cavalier footsteps of John Elway and Eli Manning to chart his own path. No, he won’t try to play baseball and probably wouldn’t be able to orchestrate maneuvering to a different team. But in today’s world of multimillion-dollar NIL endorsements that exceed the base salaries of NFL rookie contracts, Williams would return to USC for a fourth collegiate season.
As someone closely following the Trojans for 21 years, do you know my initial reaction to the tantalizing possibility for the face of college football to have one more highlight-littered campaign in the Coliseum?
It’s not because Williams isn’t a breathtaking talent, one who’s the greatest pure NFL Draft prospect since Andrew Luck, the most dynamic quarterback to ever grace USC’s campus and already the prime candidate to challenge Patrick Mahomes’ reign of NFL supremacy from now – he is. It’s not because Williams is doing anything wrong by playing this strategic leverage card. Far from it, we live in the world’s most capitalistic society where the value of monetary opportunity is its backbone.
It’s because, over the past 18 months, I’ve never gotten the feeling Caleb Williams unconditionally loves being a USC Trojan.
In 2005, Matt Leinart shocked the football world by announcing he would return for his senior season to the Cardinal and Gold in an attempt to win a third consecutive national title and second consecutive Heisman Trophy. He cited the desire to make history, to enjoy being a USC student-athlete for one more year, and the need to work on certain elements of his game as his reasons for returning. Now, Leinart never was in the same stratosphere of professional prospect that Williams is. But when you heard that announcement, you felt a genuinely pure love Leinart had for USC, one that still permeates consistently throughout his media appearances today.
In 2012, Matt Barkley resoundingly announced to the Heritage Hall faithful that he would return for a fourth and final season, much to the euphoria of Lane Kiffin and his teammates. Barkley quarterbacked USC during their darkest times in the 21st century, amid two straight years of bowl game bans and three consecutive seasons of scholarship reductions. After a 10-2 campaign, Barkley salivated at the idea of “unfinished business” to bring the Trojans back to their rightful place at the zenith of the sport. A marginally greater NFL prospect than Leinart but nowhere near as good as Williams, Barkley’s loyalty for USC then in passing up millions of dollars from guaranteed rookie signing bonus money for the love of his school has always given him a ceremonial Trojan ambassador status.
Caleb at USC has felt a lot like LeBron James in Miami or Kevin Durant with the Warriors. Transcendent, transient, and transactional. Perhaps it’s because he came from somewhere else in Oklahoma and we expect the greatest chapter of his career to be written somewhere else still in the NFL. Perhaps it’s because he has never talked passionately about what USC, its rivals, traditions, and history have meant to him. Or perhaps it’s because he isn’t from Orange County where every young boy’s dream is to be quarterback of the Trojans. But Caleb has always felt more James and Durant, while Leinart and Barkley more Dwyane Wade and Steph Curry.
Maybe that’s the unfortunate byproduct of this post-NIL, 24/7 anywhere transfer portal professionalization of college football – that players will never truly love their college teams the same way again. Maybe the above is unfair to Williams and more perception than reality. But in the world of sports, for everyone who isn’t walking in the athlete’s shoes…perception is reality. And the perception is Williams plays for Team Caleb first and the USC Trojans second.