Caleb Williams dedicated to improving USC in Heisman encore

It’s been nearly a half-century since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin won back-to-back Heisman Trophies. It’s a quarterback’s award now, and eight transcendent signal callers have had their shot in the last 20 years to equal Griffin’s feat.

None — not Bryce Young, not Lamar Jackson, not Johnny Manziel, not Tim Tebow, and not Matt Leinart — could pull it off during their Heisman encore campaign.

USC’s Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman winner, takes pride in being different, and he’ll certainly have the chance to separate himself from his peers this fall. He’s the clear betting favorite to win the award again, and he did not shy away from revealing his personal expectation on Friday at Pac-12 media day in Las Vegas.

“I told Archie I’d be back,” Williams said with a grin. “And to do that I gotta win a bunch of games.”

Williams won 11 last year in leading the Trojans’ stunning turnaround under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley. But USC lost its last two in humbling fashion. For a guy who welcomes the nickname “Superman,” seeing the Trojans’ College Football Playoff hopes disappear in the second half of the Pac-12 championship game against Utah — due in part to him injuring his hamstring on a long run in the first half — was a jolting experience.

Williams responded by devoting his offseason to preparing his mind and body to conquer all unforeseen obstacles. He said he has set personal records in various strength and speed metrics.

“We were up there in stats and rankings and stuff offensive-wise, but towards the end of the season we had a lot of guys go down, including myself,” Williams said. “That’s something we for sure have been working on, building the muscle and the fortitude to be able to withstand a 15-game season.”

Williams said his use of the number 15 speaking to the audience from the stage Friday was strategic. Only two teams in the country play 15 games — the playoff finalists.

“Yep, 15 games,” Williams affirmed later. “You don’t play for a Pac-12 championship, you don’t play for a Heisman, you don’t play for a Biletnikoff, all those awards. You play for the end goal, and you want to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the long haul. So you prepare yourself for 15. Because we’ve got a real shot this year.”

USC was picked by the media to win the conference in its last Pac-12 season. The Trojans added plenty of transfer portal talent on their offensive and defensive lines to go along with proven skill players such as wide receiver Dorian Singer and running back MarShawn Lloyd.

There’s a stronger foundation built around Williams, but ultimately, he has to do his part and take the next step as a player, too.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws before the USC spring game at the Coliseum in April.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws before the USC spring game at the Coliseum in April.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“No matter if you’re LeBron in year 20 whatever, or you’re me at year three in college, you have something to improve on, or you won’t get close to the perfection of what you’re trying to master.”

— Caleb Williams, USC quarterback

“Everybody assumes the Heisman and the MVP were perfect,” Riley said. “How does Pat Mahomes improve? How does Aaron Rodgers? The journey never ends. You’re just constantly climbing.

“What happens is, you say, all right, I did well, I conquered that set of challenges, and all of a sudden a new challenge comes up that’s different than what you went against that first year, and you’re not ready for it because you became complacent. That’s when you see guys rise up and then take a dip in performance. It’s that mentality that the job will never be done. It’s done when you retire and stop playing football, and if you do it any differently that retirement will come sooner than you want it to.”

Williams is considered to be a shoo-in as the No. 1 overall pick in the next NFL draft. The presumption is that some struggling NFL team is going to be lucky enough to draft a player with the ability to alter a franchise’s trajectory just like he has the USC program in a short time.

But Williams seems to understand his place in the journey Riley spoke of. None of this is preordained.

“No matter if you’re LeBron in Year 20 whatever, or you’re me at year three in college, you have something to improve on, or you won’t get close to the perfection of what you’re trying to master,” Williams said. “I’ve chosen a few things. One is mental, one is situational, the other part is staying in my routine. I think I did very well with it last year, but there were certain parts of the season where I slowed down with certain things that I should have maintained and kept going with.”

For Williams to lead USC to that 15th game and return the Trojans to the national championship stage for the first time in 18 years, he will need to get past that Pac-12 title game right here in Vegas.

He learned something about himself that night in the desert that he can take with him into what is almost certain to be his last college season.

“That the game is bigger than anything that I’m feeling,” Williams said. “It’s something I’m practicing. But when you have the moment, actually in person right then and there, you never really know what’s going to happen. Being able to fight through something like that and be able to play at a high level, it’s added a lot of confidence to me, and I can’t wait to get back out there.”