Caleb Williams

‘He doesn't blink:' Why Caleb Williams is wired to withstand pressure, break Bears' QB curse

Caleb Williams might be uniquely built to succeed where others have failed for the past 80 years.

NBC Universal, Inc.

Caleb Williams has succeeded as an individual and as the leader of a team for as long as he’s been under center.

Williams led Gonzaga High School to the 2019 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship as a high school sophomore, taking down DeMatha with a Hail Mary that sparked his legend. Williams burst onto the college scene as a freshman at Oklahoma when he entered the Red River Rivalry against Texas in relief of starter Spencer Rattler and led the Sooners to a 55-48 comeback win over the Texas Longhorns. Williams went 5-2 as a starter at Oklahoma before transferring to USC in 2022, where he led the Trojans to an 11-3 record and won the Heisman Trophy.

Winning is in Williams’ DNA, which is what made the 2023 season so challenging for the 22-year-old quarterback. USC’s roster was flawed. Williams was constantly under siege, the defense struggled to get off the field, and the offensive attack often relied on Williams playing hero instead of within structure.

USC got off to a 6-0 start on the back of Williams’ elite playmaking ability. But a three-interception performance in a loss to Notre Dame sent the Trojans back to reality. A week after struggling against Notre Dame, Williams and the Trojans dropped a 34-32 heartbreaker to the Utah Utes, forcing Williams to confront a type of season he had never dealt with.

After the loss to Utah, Williams met with head coach Lincoln Riley to discuss the direction of the season and how he’d have to approach a different type of adversity during his final collegiate season.

“Lincoln sat me down after maybe our lost to Utah, and he sat me down and he said either you grow from something like this or you keep feeling this feeling and you stay where you are,” Williams said at the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine.

The Trojans would lose three of their final four regular-season games to finish at 7-5. Williams' collegiate career ended with a 38-20 loss to rival UCLA, during which he was sacked four times and pressured throughout.

It wasn't the swan song Williams hoped for at USC. He entered the season as the favorite to repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner, with USC picked to win the PAC-12. Instead, Williams trudged through a season that fell short of expectations, which caused him to navigate a season of adversity.

Having to face adversity instead of lighting the college football world on fire for a second consecutive season gave NFL teams, especially the Chicago Bears, the team most expect to draft Williams with the No. 1 overall pick in next week’s 2024 NFL Draft, an important touchpoint in their evaluation of his makeup.

"There have been quarterbacks in the past where they are undefeated for three years, they have a bunch of first-round picks surrounding them at all times, so it's a projection of how they handle discomfort, how they handle pressure," Bears general manager Ryan Poles told NBC Sports Chicago at the annual NFL owner's meetings in Orlando. "So, seeing some of these guys go through hard times is important because now you can actually talk about it and listen to them kind of go back and, 'OK, what can I kind of do to get better? How could I handle certain situations better?' There are so many learning lessons from that. It just makes you feel comfortable where, if you're in a situation like that, the kid is going to come out on the other side because if not they can crumble easily."

Poles and the Bears landed the No. 1 pick in the draft, a Williams lottery ticket, via last year’s blockbuster trade with the Carolina Panthers. The Bears have loved Williams since early in the pre-draft process, and Poles cleared the way for the USC star to have a soft landing in Chicago when he traded quarterback Justin Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Williams will arrive in Chicago with the weight of a city on his shoulders.

The arm talent, accuracy and playmaking ability aren't up for debate. The word "generational" has been thrown around about Williams since he took the job from Rattler at Oklahoma.

But it takes more than physical gifts to make it in a league that chews up and spits out even the most talented prospects without bias.

Pressure comes with being the No. 1 overall pick. It's part of the package. Every NFL quarterback deals with adversity.

Both of those will be amplified when Williams enters a Chicago cauldron that will have astronomically high expectations and will crush him if he starts to fall short. That Williams will have to win over a veteran locker room that was vocal in its support of Fields only adds to the challenge he'll face starting next month at OTAs.

However, those who have coached Williams believe he is uniquely equipped to handle those challenges — not because of the talent that resides in his right arm but because of the makeup of what's between his ears.

"You take a kid, that, pretty much the bulk of his life and all of his high school, I mean, he was waking up at four or five o'clock in the morning and going to the gym and working out on his own, you know, organizing a group of guys to go to catch for him or organizing a group of guys to go work for him," USC passing game coordinator Dennis Simmons, who coached Williams at USC and Oklahoma, told NBC Sports Chicago. "I mean, that's not something that you coach; that’s something that someone has a passion for and enjoys doing it and wants to do.

"This kid's getting up every day, morning, day after day after day, because of hopes of one day being able to play on the stage and being able to fulfill a dream. I mean, that, that that tells you about the mentality and the character and the passion that he has for this game."

USC head coach Lincoln Riley recruited Williams to Oklahoma and brought him to USC.

Riley has seen Williams, who had his senior high school season canceled due to COVID-19, embrace every challenge he's faced and overcome it without batting an eye.

"From an adversity standpoint, I mean, taking over halfway into his freshman year at Oklahoma after not being able to play a senior year of high school and then moving to a new school, a new conference, new group of guys kind of knew everything, you know, and facing those things head on, I think shows you about how he handles adversity," Riley told NBC Sports Chicago. "Mentally, he's come a long way. He's, he's hungry to learn the game, he continues to improve."

When Riley, Simmons and Williams arrived at USC, the Trojans' program was in relative disarray after a 4-8 season saw head coach Clay Helton fired in early September.

Riley and his staff were brought to LA to rebuild one of college football's premiere programs. Getting Williams to follow them from Norman to Los Angeles helped stabilize a rocky program. Williams did that through his daily actions on the practice field, the weight room and the film room.

"When we got there, there was a lot of work that needed to be done," a former coach of Williams told NBC Sports Chicago. "Caleb, to his credit, really helped set the culture for what we wanted to build. He set the standard and held himself to the highest standard on the team. And it wasn’t easy. He's not used to losing and it was hard on him at times. You have to think, coming back the season after you win the Heisman, the pressure is immense. Then, you lose a game or two and it really ramps up for him to find a way to fix it. He never let it crack him. He was always the same guy every day. He embraced the pressure and responsibility of being that guy. When things get tough, he doesn’t blink. When he faces it on Sundays, he’ll embrace it and come out the other side. It’s who he is."

It's that passion for the game, tireless work ethic and insatiable hunger for greatness that has those who have coached Williams believing his veteran teammates in Chicago will quickly embrace him.

The NFL is a business. Winning is the currency. Williams pays his way with sweat in the bucket, which helps him deliver wins on gameday.

"Good players want to play with good players. And good players also want to play with great players who can help them be better," Simmons said. "And I think, especially when you get to that level, because you're talking about on any given Sunday, we're talking about 1,200 men have an opportunity to be employed by the NFL. I mean, you can't fool those guys. They know ball, and they know talent, when they see talent, and they know when a guy's got something and when a guy doesn't. And I think after a day of being around him and being in those practices, and when he steps into that huddle, not only is his presence going to command that respect, his athletic talent is going to support that. Guys are going to be like, 'OK, we got something here.'"

Legendary Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops watched Williams work as a freshman and had the opportunity to coach the presumptive No. 1 pick for a few weeks as Oklahoma's interim head coach for the 2021 Holiday Bowl after Riley’s departure.

Williams could have opted out of a late December bowl game and gotten an early start following Riley's move to Southern California.

Instead, he stayed to finish what he started with his Sooners teammates.

"He's a team guy. He's an incredibly high character young man," Stoops, who now coaches the Arlington Renegades in the XFL, told NBC Sports Chicago of those few weeks with Williams. "The team matters to him. And you know, he wanted to win one more game for everybody that was in that locker room at least at that point. Tells you he is a team guy and he cares he cares winning. He’s a winner. Where he goes, he wins."

A pre-draft narrative that surfaced over the past few weeks is that Williams has never dealt with adversity and won't know how to respond when it hits on the biggest stage.

That's a narrative that Williams blasted in a social media response to former Alabama quarterback and current ESPN analyst Greg McElroy.

Williams noted he arrived at Oklahoma as the backup behind a preseason Heisman Trophy winner in Rattler. That was a challenge he accepted and took head-on. He popped his hamstring early in USC's 2022 PAC-12 title game loss to the Utah Utes, which cost the Trojans a playoff spot. Then, there was a 7-5 season in which everything went wrong for an imperfect Trojans roster.

That's all true.

The adversity will be greater in Chicago because the pressure and expectations will increase tenfold.

The Bears have a bonafide No. 1 receiver in DJ Moore and added veteran star Keenan Allen this offseason, giving Williams two of the most quarterback-friendly receivers in the NFL. Add in tight ends Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett, running back D’Andre Swift, an improving offensive line, and an ascending defense, and Williams should face a soft landing in Chicago.

Still, the spotlight will shine brightly on Williams. Every pass he throws in training camp will be meticulously logged and dissected, and the first crushing interception he throws will set Chicago sports radio ablaze.

The weight will be immense. However, prospects like Williams, those who crave impossible challenges because of the immortality tied to them, have the rare wiring required to outlast and survive a gauntlet that has bent and broken all who have come before him.

It also won't hurt that Williams will enter what is arguably the best situation for a No. 1 overall pick in the modern era.

Being the Bears' starting quarterback — a curse-breaker — gives Williams precisely what he has always wanted: a chance to be remembered.

"Pressure and expectations are nothing new to Caleb," another former coach told NBC Sports Chicago. "I don’t know if there could be greater expectations than what he puts on himself. You're talking about a kid who has wanted to be a Hall of Famer since he was 14. Now lots of kids dream of being Hall of Famers, but almost none are putting in the work at 14, 15 to be great. He was. This is what he wants. I think Chicago is the perfect match for him. It's a city that is craving the type of quarterback he is, and I think the expectations placed on him from the moment he gets there will only make him better. A lot of guys get chewed up by that stuff. He’s not most guys."

At the combine, Williams shrugged off the daunting task of coming to a franchise that has failed the quarterback development test numerous times.

Staring what many believe is an impossible task — surviving and thriving as the Bears' quarterback — didn’t seem to faze the presumptive No. 1 pick. If anything, it made him light up.

"I don't compare myself to the other guys that's there or been there," Williams said. "I’m my own player and I tend to like to create history and rewrite history."

For Williams, the history he has been writing, a story since he was a boy with dreams in the Washington D.C. area, only ends in championships and a gold jacket. Those are prizes earned through a combination of mental fortitude, unflappable work ethic, rare talent and an iron will.

That's a concoction that those who have watched and worked with Williams closely over the last three years believe fuels a quarterback many see as the best pure prospect since Andrew Luck.

"I think Caleb can be as good as Caleb wants to be," Simmons said. "And I know Caleb is a very competitive, driven guy. And I know without a shadow of a doubt he has ambition, he has a drive to become, at the end of the day, when his career is all said and done, he wants to be considered one of those best, very best players, and he wants his name to be mentioned among the greats. The sky's the limit for Caleb."

"Everybody that has ever went into that league has had tough moments, and Caleb will have his too," Riley said. "It’s just part of it. But he's going to make a lot of great plays, too. I think he's a guy that saved up for the long haul. He loves the game, he loves being a part of a team, loves competing; he knows he's got a good sense that there's going to be a lot of work to be done. You don't know if you’re ready until you jump into it. But he's faced a lot of these challenges he's had up to this point head-on. He's found ways to succeed and to get better. His response in the NFL will be similar when he faces those adversities. And if he can do that and continue to climb, there's no telling how good he can be."

As for the potentially paralyzing pressure that will come with being the long-desired savior of the NFL’s charter franchise, that’s an external factor that might not even smudge an armor built to withstand the hottest fires en route to a planned destination of greatness.

It didn't at his last two stops.

"He played at Oklahoma and USC," Stoops said. "That’s what I’ll say about that. There isn’t much more pressure than at those two programs. I don’t think anything is too big for him to handle."

Click here to follow the Under Center Podcast.

Contact Us