Caleb Williams

How to contain Caleb Williams? Top defensive prospects share how they did it

Almost no college teams managed to contain Caleb Williams entirely, but some slowed him down enough to win

NBC Universal, Inc.

INDIANAPOLIS – What’s it take to stop Caleb Williams? That’s a question that figures to be on many minds from now through his arrival in the NFL. GMs who are building their draft boards, fans who are trying to keep up with the latest draft info and defensive coordinators who will be tasked with keeping him in check.

Based on the level of hype surrounding Williams at this point you’d imagine he’s an unstoppable force. An offensive god running past mere mortals on the field. Obviously that’s not the case. While scouts almost all agree that Williams is a rare talent and one of the most tantalizing QB prospects in years, he’s not an infallible football machine.

On Wednesday, some of the players who managed to stop– or at least slow– Williams spoke at the NFL Combine and they shared how they did it. In speaking with these players two things became apparent: all the players had a healthy respect for Williams’ game-breaking ability and all the players were laser focused on doing the little things correctly.

“You gameplan on everybody, but for someone like him that can make every throw on the field… he’s an unbelievable talent,” said UCLA defensive lineman Gabriel Murphy. “He’s hard to take down. Thick build.”

In two games against USC, Murphy sacked Williams 1.5 times. Washington pass rusher Bralen Trice played against Williams just once and notched half of a sack in the lone meeting. He echoed Murphy’s sentiment.

“Caleb is a great athlete,” said Trice. “Freak athlete. He’s a generational talent, I think. He’s one of those quarterbacks that we’re out there praying for– just seeing him out there running around and throwing the ball, it’s like ‘Sheesh, this guy’s good.’”

Williams racked up over 300 passing yards and scored four touchdowns against the Huskies defense, but they managed to contain him and the Trojan offense enough to win. Trice said the key was going back to basics to prevent one of his numerous five or six touchdown performances.

“It starts with the contain, right? You go back to your fundamentals as an edge. Contain the quarterback, keep him in the pocket, don’t let him get outside of you.

“At the end of the day, when you have a quarterback that can move around like that, it just comes back to doing your job.”

“Just get his legs,” said Utah edge rusher Jonah Elliss, who sacked Williams twice in three games against the Trojans. “He’s got strong legs, so it’s form tackling at that point because he’s one of those quarterbacks who’s both elusive and strong. That’s a really good combo he has.”

The Utes had the most consistent success against Williams in college. They went 3-0 against him and the Trojans– although a couple of those losses can be chalked up to the leaky SC defense, not Williams who racked up 744 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns in their two 2022 meetings. The one team to give Williams the most trouble over his career was the Fighting Irish in 2023. They limited Williams to 199 yards and one touchdown, while intercepting him three times. That marked just the second time in his college career that he threw multiple interceptions in a game. The key for the Irish was learning from their past mistakes.

“The thing that was so dangerous about him was his ability to extend plays,” said Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand. “Two years ago we could see that. He would turn a four-second play into an eight-second play. We were hurting our secondary trying to make them cover for so long.”

So they made some adjustments. The defense put fewer players in the box and packed their coverage, inviting the Trojans to run the ball. Then, they made sure to stay disciplined in their lanes to avoid getting gashed.

“Our plan going at him was to really keep him in the pocket, a true cage rush,” said Bertrand.

When Williams escaped their contain– because Williams escaping contain at some points was inevitable– they tried to flush him away from his throwing hand. They made sure to keep a spy player on him to limit the damage, too.

Finally, the Fighting Irish tried to keep Williams guessing as much as possible with pre-snap disguises.

“We know that a lot of the sideline checks would come in and he would scan the sideline, then communicate. So for us we tried to hold the disguise as long as possible.”

The plan worked for Notre Dame, and the basic tenets could apply in the NFL. But in a league where play calls don’t come in from the sideline, opposing defensive coordinators will have to come up with other creative ways to make him uncomfortable.

That is what defenses will have to do in order to slow Williams down, however. Get creative, make him uncomfortable and don’t make fundamental mistakes.

Click here to follow the Under Center Podcast.

Contact Us