Can USC QB Caleb Williams overcome a lackluster defense?

The hallmark of a great quarterback is someone who handles pressure well, flexes elite arm talent, and has a leadership quality that can elevate his unit to victory every weekend. USC signal-caller Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, checks all of those boxes — and then some.

But even with a historic 2022 campaign, the Trojans were unable to secure a Pac-12 Championship or College Football Playoff appearance. Williams held up his end of the bargain by leading the high-octane Lincoln Riley offense. However, the other side of the ball routinely let the star-studded passer down.

Caleb Williams Needs Help From The USC Defense

Even dating back to Oklahoma, Riley has consistently dealt with criticism centered around his ability to recruit top-tier defenders. His choices at coordinator also raised questions with the Sooners, and the same is true for USC.

Current defensive coordinator Alex Grinch sported one of the most abysmal groups in college football last season. Somehow, Riley decided to retain Grinch, hoping that a second year together would allow the defense to mesh. Through one week of action — it is safe to say that things are just more of the same.

The defense ranked amongst the worst in run defense, pass rushing, and tackling grades (via PFF). It allowed nearly 30 points per game, including six games of surrendering 35 points or more in the final two months. Needless to say, the Trojans must get more from Grinch and Co. in 2023.

Perhaps Williams can reach another level and make all this concern for naught. I mean, who cares if the defense gives up 30 per game if the offense is dropping 45 every Saturday? I’m sure USC fans and their blood pressure levels are the ones that care, but a win is a win at the end of the day. Right?

Luckily for Williams, he has an embarrassment of riches to work with on offense. Riley, for all his faults, can put up points with ease. He has proven that by coaching Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and now Caleb Williams to Heisman Trophy campaigns.

Weapons, Weapons, And More Weapons

The Trojans lost top pass catcher Jordan Addison to the NFL Draft, but similar to the Hydra, if you cut one head off — two more grow in its place. Out goes Addison; in comes freshman Zachariah Branch and Arizona transfer Dorian Singer. Both had a receiving touchdown in their USC debuts.

Branch did more than score on offense, though. In a play that drew comparisons to the legendary Reggie Bush, Branch sliced and diced the special teams unit, returning a punt back for six points.

The play started slow, as the explosive wideout fielded the punt and lulled the oncoming tacklers to sleep before hitting the jets and leaving them in his dust. Branch looks the part of a cheat code and could transform into the WR1 for Williams early in the year — he is that good.

The offensive line was fine in the opener vs. San Jose State, but it must improve as USC enters the heavyweight portion of its schedule. MarShawn Lloyd shoulders the load at running back and has remarkable versatility out of the backfield. If the line can create space for him, Lloyd has a big year on the way.

Caleb Williams Is The Favorite To Go No. 1 Overall At The 2024 NFL Draft

Williams showcased his NFL-caliber arm strength with a long touchdown pass off his back foot, a play that began with a horrendous snap by his center. The magician signal-caller not only corralled the errant snap, he quickly flicked the ball downfield to an open receiver for more points. This play signifies why Williams is a favorite to win a second Heisman in 2023. And go No. 1 overall at the 2024 NFL Draft.

Still, as excited as we can possibly get about the offense — the looming disaster of a defense clouds the team’s season-long projection. No matter how great Williams is, he simply cannot do it alone, especially in a sport with 21 other players on the field at any given moment.

But it has become a fool’s goal to bet against Caleb Williams. It won’t come easy, but a scenario where USC scores north of 35 points in every game is possible. That might be enough to navigate the regular season and earn a berth in the College Football Playoffs.

Would it be enough to beat the elite of the elites from the SEC and Big 10, though? The Trojans take on Notre Dame, Utah, Washington, and Oregon in 2022. We’ll know by the end of October if USC has the all-around talent to be a title contender. Until then, skepticism will remain.