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Caleb Williams joins USC football’s most elite club with Heisman Trophy

NEW YORK CITY — When quarterback Caleb Williams formally entered the transfer portal a little less than a year ago, it seems there were a variety of opinions within his support system of family and mentors about where he should go in moving on from Oklahoma.

One can read between the lines and deduce that not everybody was on board with Williams choosing to follow coach Lincoln Riley to USC after Riley had surprised him — and everyone else in Norman, Okla. — by leaving the Sooners for the Trojans.

“I kept him guessing for a few weeks,” Williams said of Riley, reflecting back on the pivotal decision this week. “I ended up saying to my dad, ‘This is where I’m going.’ And my mentors. It was a lot of other stuff that had to go with it that was going on. There was a lot going on at the time. There was a couple arguments, there was a couple heated arguments that happened throughout that process, but I’m here now and it’s been great.”

Williams was asked to clarify whether those heated conversations were with Riley or his family.

“Not with Linc. We had a couple real conversations and deep conversations just trying to make sure everything is how it should be, but the heated arguments was with my family and mentors because there was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of other people’s opinions going on and things like that,” Williams said. “My dad always told me, ‘When you make a decision go with it.’ I made a decision and I made sure that my decision was what I wanted and was best for me. The only person that can know what’s best for you totally is you.”

Just like he knew the first time through that process as a top high school recruit out of Washington, D.C., Williams wanted to attach his future to Riley — the star young coach who had produced two Heisman Trophy winners and a Heisman runner-up in his first three seasons at Oklahoma.

And on Saturday night in New York City, Williams became the third QB to win the Heisman Trophy in Riley’s now six seasons as a head coach (along with Baker Mayfield in 2017 and Kyler Murray in 2018).

RELATED: Former USC Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart explain what makes Caleb Williams such a special talent

Officially, USC is now tied for the most Heisman winners at seven with Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State, but that’s because Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman was vacated and has not been restored by the Heisman Trust. As far as any Trojans fan is concerned, though, Williams gives the program more Heisman winners than any other school in college football.

“Awards aren’t everything, but sometimes it is good to get a little recognition or just kind of a feel good from people noticing you’ve been working hard and all the hard work you’ve been putting in,” Williams said leading up to the ceremony this week.

This is always how it was supposed to work out, as Williams envisioned, playing for the coach he believed could bring the best out of his highly-coveted skill set and allow him to prove what he already believed — that he was the best quarterback in the country.

Yes, they talked about the Heisman during his initial recruitment — about Riley’s very relevant history producing winners of the award and about how Williams had the ability to get to that point.

“Obviously, it was mentioned. This is a very special award. So obviously it was mentioned, but I obviously already knew that he had two previous Heisman winners and J Hurt [Jalen Hurts] being a finalist. I already knew all that, but it was mentioned,” Williams said. “I thought of myself before college as being the best player — that’s not to anything being cocky. I worked for it. Obviously, I had an offer from Coach Riley and he doesn’t give out offers like that. I thought I was one of the best players coming into college and wanted to be the best when I got here, so that’s kind of what one of these awards brings to you.”

Williams had already won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, Associated Press Player of the Year, Walter Camp Player of the Year and Maxwell Award honors in the run-up to the Heisman.

He has completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 4,075 yards, 37 touchdown and 4 interceptions while rushing for 372 yards and 10 touchdowns while leading USC to an 11-2 record after the program finished 4-8 last year prior to his arrival.

He broke the program record for total touchdowns in a season — previously 41 by Matt Barkley (2011) and Cody Kessler (2014) — and his 4,447 total offensive yards ranks first on USC’s single-season list (Sam Darnold previously held the record with 4,225 total yards in 2017). Williams’ 372 rushing yards this season is also the most by a USC QB in the last 70 years since complete records were available. The previous record was 342 by Jim Sears in 1952

Former Trojan Cody Kessler currently holds the USC record for the lowest rate of interceptions in a season with 1.1% (5 in 452 attempts in 2014). Williams is currently at 0.9% (4 in 407 attempts) and on pace to overtake that mark too.

Williams trails only Darnold for the single-season passing yards mark (4,143) and could overtake both that and the completions record (315 by Kessler) if he plays in the Cotton Bowl next month.

But his place in program lore is now secured in one of the most meaningful of ways.

Like the Trojans’ two Heisman QBs before him, Carson Palmer (2002) and Matt Leinart (2004), Williams will now forever be linked to bringing USC football back to national prominence. USC would have been headed in the right direction with Riley regardless, but landing Williams expedited the rejuvenation — or restoration — of this proud program.

Interestingly, the origin for that aspect of it all was a recruiting visit to Norman, Okla., back in early 2020 and the relationship that formed that day while persevering through the transfer portal and those tough conversations last January.

“I went on a visit one time and we went to a room to watch film and we were supposed to only probably be in there for about 20 minutes. We ended up being about two hours,” Williams said of Riley. “So there was just a certain click that we had and it’s been chugging along or booming ever since.”

Definitely booming.

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