Hernández: Caleb Williams, at just 19, shows he’s ready to lead USC

Caleb Williams patted his teammates on their shoulder pads as he walked behind them to his chair in the interview room.

Once seated, the 19-year-old USC quarterback threw his head back and exhaled.

Williams was the youngest of the five Trojans on the stage but clearly the most comfortable.

The rest were typical college players. They chose their words carefully. They were practically frozen on stage.

Williams looked like he was in his own living room as he reflected on USC’s spring game.

He raised his eyebrows.

He criss-crossed them.

He smiled.

He’s laughing.

He gritted his teeth.

He didn’t say much, but it wasn’t necessary. His expressive face and calm demeanor conveyed what was important, which was that he was meant to be in the spotlight.

A second-year transfer that followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, Williams is the player who most symbolizes this new era of USC football.

Which, by extension, could make him Los Angeles’ next superstar athlete.

Saturday’s glorified scrimmage amounted to a public unveiling, but Williams treated it as, well, a glorified scrimmage.

“I’m not really nervous,” he said with a nonchalant delivery that underscored his point.

USC claimed the advertised crowd of 33,427 was the largest to watch a spring game since attendance records were first set in the late 1990s, but Williams was not baffled.

He completed his first nine passes. He finished his first two practices with touchdown passes to Mario Williams, another second-year transfer from Oklahoma.

Alternating drives with backup quarterback Miller Moss over two 15-minute halves, Williams was 10-for-12 passing for 98 yards.

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Riley said. “He’s becoming a more seasoned and experienced quarterback.”

It is already electric.

Williams can run, as he showed on the first play of his second practice when he faked a pump and shoved down the right sideline for an eight-yard gain.

He can throw, as he demonstrated on the next play when he threw a perfectly weighted pass that traveled almost 30 yards in the air as defensive lineman Tyrone Taleni closed in on him. Receiver Terrell Bynum was on the other end of the 29-yard completion.

“The quarterback position, to win championships, you need that position to play well,” Riley said.

Williams wasn’t perfect, however, after his two scoring drives with a couple three-and-outs in succession.

If the disappointing second half was a useful reminder of his youth, his response could be seen as cause for optimism.

“The start was solid,” Williams said. “The end, not so solid. I have to improve the movement of the ball in the second half. It’s always big. Always a new game when you come out in the second half.

He didn’t look panicked, or even slightly worried.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams, right, talks to coach Lincoln Riley during the Trojans’ spring game Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Williams seemed to know where the Trojans were and where they were heading.

“It was awesome, coming here, getting in front of a few fans, having ESPN and all that, showing the audience what we’re going to be, and we’re not even close to what we’re going to be,” he said.

Williams turns 20 in November but behaves as if he is much older. He is listed as 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds but plays much bigger.

His cold confidence made other players gravitate towards him and recognize him as their leader.

“It’s that guy,” wide receiver Brenden Rice said during spring training.

Williams has taken on this role, aware of what he needs to do to change the culture of the program.

“We have a leadership group,” Williams said. “We meet about every week. One of the most important things is that elite teams are player driven, held accountable by the players. Good teams, they are led by their coaches, held accountable by the coaches. Poor teams, no one does that. We tried to be the elite team.

The “it” factor that others describe in Williams will be necessary as he takes on the inflated expectations of a rejuvenated fan base that has been beaten down and often humiliated during Clay Helton’s tenure.

Less than a year after graduating from high school, the old soul with the youthful smile seems ready to take on the responsibility.

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