The last month had been a whirlwind of new for the Trojans’ new quarterback. New school. New city. New colors. New logo. New hype and expectations.
But as he jogged alone toward the first spring practice of his USC career, Williams touched the Trojans sword and threw up a “V for Victory” sign with two fingers to flashing cameras, deftly working through the motions as if they were muscle memory, as if he’d belonged here, in this role, all along.
Then, Williams took a hard left in the wrong direction, jogging away from USC’s practice field down McClintock Avenue, where a security guard stopped him and set him on the right path.
“It’s my first day!” Williams exclaimed, laughing as he finally found the door to the field.
The truth is Williams never expected to be here.
Until coach Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma in a hurry at the end of last season, Williams planned to spend the next two years as the Sooners’ star passer. The process that led him to choose Oklahoma in the first place hadn’t even allowed for the possibility of a transfer.
But here he was anyway, the most high-profile transfer in America and the face of a team built largely through the portal, on a campus 1,500 miles from his last one.
None of that had been part of his plans. So when it came to deciding on his next destination, Williams told himself he would take his time. Even as the college football world assumed he was all but bound for USC to rejoin Riley, Williams went through each step of the process he’d set out for himself, equally considering futures at Wisconsin and UCLA while USC fans held their breath.
Williams wasn’t immediately sold on the Trojans. He still had questions for Riley. The coach’s exit, in the wake of Oklahoma’s loss to Oklahoma State, was “pretty rough,” Williams said. “But I got through it.”
It wasn’t until Williams officially entered the transfer portal that he was allowed to speak with Riley and air those grievances. He used those weeks to feel out what life might be like without the coach.
But when they finally connected, Williams said, “it was actually a big relief.
“Before I went to Oklahoma, I built such a great relationship with him and other people that came here, strength staff and other staff included, not just Coach Riley,” Williams said. “That was a big piece for me. It wasn’t just about Coach Riley being here.”
That relationship should help USC’s offense hit the ground running this spring. With Williams at the helm, there’s no steep learning curve for the quarterback in Riley’s offense. Williams is already well acquainted with the playbook. He already has a rapport with one of his top receivers, Mario Williams, who followed coach and quarterback from Oklahoma to L.A.
“He’s going to be awesome this season,” Mario Williams said of his quarterback.
He wasn’t the only one with glowing early reviews.
“He has that confidence you want in a quarterback, that swagger,” center Brett Neilon said.
“He’s a leader,” running back Austin Jones said. “Most definitely, he’s an alpha. He’s going to come out here, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to do his thing. And you see it in him. Dude is a baller.”
So when Williams stepped into an unfamiliar locker room last month, it didn’t take long for him to make his presence known. He’d already taken the reins at Oklahoma as a freshman, immediately endearing himself to an offense that had been built around another passer.
At USC, Riley said, it came just as naturally.
“Caleb’s got a good way about him,” Riley said. “He’s one of those guys who can walk into a room with people he doesn’t know and he’s kind of a chameleon; he can fit in in any place. He’s played some ball. He’s been through it, I think, wanted to come here and establish himself as a leader.”
That process is well underway. But there are still plenty of adjustments to be made with USC’s offense. More players are expected to be added through the transfer portal this summer, one of which could be a quarterback, as USC is down to just Williams and returning redshirt freshman Miller Moss.
Williams, Riley reminded, is anything but a finished product. The coach said he and his staff “identified a lot of areas where [Williams] can improve as a player” and challenged him to keep attacking those areas this spring.
“He’s a long way from being the best player he can be,” Riley said.
That thought might be enough to give USC fans goose bumps.
But for Williams, the last month has been a reminder of how much he still has to learn. Not only about the offense he now helms, but also the campus he’s been wandering.
“I should probably get a scooter,” Williams said, “but the main thing that I’ve learned [about USC] is walking. It’s a lot of walking. You’ve got to have great time management walking around campus.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.