Monday, June 24, 2024

USC’s Caleb Williams brings ‘king vibes’ into potential crowning game v. Notre Dame

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LOS ANGELES — The familiar shouts came back in July, the budding king of Los Angeles obliging a slew of Dodgers fans for autographs on the day he tossed out a ceremonial first pitch, center Justin Dedich describing the scene after practice Wednesday.

Ca-leb! Ca-leb! Ca-leb!

And this had, of course, become commonplace for Caleb Williams, a public-savvy superstar who needs no reminder about humility. But Dedich, his affable fellow captain at USC, still chimed in anyway.

“I wouldn’t want that signature,” Dedich recalled joking to fans.

The two have built a close bond, quarterback and center, close enough that Dedich can accidentally snap a ball directly into Williams’ groin and joke that it was on purpose. Close enough that he assumed the public address microphone at Dodger Stadium that day in July to fire off digs at his QB.

“I try to be the guy in his life that’s a little bit of a (jerk) to him,” Dedich said Wednesday, a grin beaming underneath his mustache. “Everyone praises him, and stuff, and I just try to make little side remarks to keep him humble.”

In the past couple of weeks, adding a flourish to his touchdown celebrations, Williams has shed just a hint of that public humility. In a new custom, endorsed by Lakers star LeBron James himself, Williams has placed hands over his head in a king-me gesture after scores against both Colorado and Arizona.

“It’s just kind of an energy thing for me, kind of a persona that I’m taking on, I guess you could say,” Williams said of the celebration, after practice Wednesday. “Just kind of feeling that way.”

“Just, king vibes.”

The world first saw a sneak preview of King Vibes at this same inflection point almost a year ago, with USC taking down Notre Dame, 38-27, at a key place in the schedule. Williams threw four touchdown passes and receiver Jordan Addison placed an invisible crown on his quarterback’s head in the midst of a runaway Heisman Trophy race. And with 10th-ranked USC (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) not publicly favored for the first time all season amid a trip to South Bend, with his back-to-back Heisman odds slipping ever-so-slightly behind Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., Williams has the chance to make another emphatic statement against the Fighting Irish.

But oh, will it not be easy.

For a full first quarter against Arizona last week, Williams looked off. He overthrew a streaking Tahj Washington, smacking his hands together repeatedly in frustration afterward. He overthrew Brenden Rice, then fired too wide, on a later drive, to Washington again.

He rebounded in dramatic fashion, realizing Arizona’s defense was packing coverage and beating the Wildcats with his legs. But Williams’ final numbers through the air were tempered, if not efficient – 14 of 25 for 219 yards and a score. And a look at his final line against blitzes reveals why: just 6 of 14 for 84 yards, per Pro Football Focus.

It’s a major point of emphasis against Notre Dame, an elite and versatile defensive unit that features five players who have generated more than 10 pressures thus far this year (by comparison, no Pac-12 team has more than four).

“Their linebackers are super aggressive … those guys are so good, they like to blitz ’em,” offensive line coach Josh Henson said Wednesday. “We gotta be ready to pick up those blitzes.”

Williams, in turn, will need to be ready for them, operating with more early-game assertiveness against pressure.

“Not taking sacks on first and second down is huge, and that’s something I didn’t do as well last game,” Williams said Wednesday. “In our last game, I had three first and second-down sacks, and in the first couple games, I think I had zero total, something like that.”

Indeed: Williams didn’t take a first- or second-down sack, actually, until USC’s fourth game of the season at Arizona State. He’s faced considerably more pressure against Colorado and Arizona, leading to full quarters when he’s looked out of rhythm, and USC was well aware – as Williams said Wednesday – that opposing teams would look to copy any successful schemes.

The Fighting Irish might mix together the best version of a blitz- and defensive back-heavy coverage Williams has seen all year. And thus, a potential second crowning moment awaits.

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