By The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams is The Associated Press college football player of the year, becoming the school’s first winner of the award since 2005 with his stellar debut season for the Trojans.
Williams received 32 of the 46 first-place votes and 117 total points from AP Top 25 poll voters to win the award presented by Regions Bank. The Heisman Trophy favorite finished well ahead of TCU quarterback Max Duggan, who came in second with six first-place votes and 64 points.
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud was third, with Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker in fourth and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett fifth.
Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr., the first repeat SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was the only non-quarterback in this year’s top eight vote-getters, finishing sixth after coming in fourth last season.
Stroud and Hooker got two first-place votes apiece, while one first-place vote each went to Bennett, Anderson and star running backs Bijan Robinson of Texas and Blake Corum of Michigan.
The clear favorite was Williams, the elusive passer and runner with an electrifying arm and strong leadership skills. The sophomore followed Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to the West Coast last winter, and the duo immediately returned USC (11-2) to national prominence with a seven-win improvement on last season’s record.
Williams has passed for 4,075 yards with an FBS-leading 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season, completing 66.1% of his passes while winning the Pac-12′s Offensive Player of the Year award.
His ability to avoid defensive pressure has bordered on the supernatural at times, and he has racked up 372 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns while setting the USC school records for total touchdowns and total offensive yards (4,447) in a season.
“I think he’s just elegant in the way he plays the game,” USC receiver Kyle Ford said. “That’s the only word to describe it. He’s out there and he’s in the backfield, zigzagging around and doing spin moves, and he doesn’t get touched and has a first down, and he’s out of bounds. Stuff like that is amazing to me, stuff that he pulls off during a game. He’s a gamer, and he’s a winner.”
Perhaps most impressively, Williams has played a critical role in bringing cohesion, teamwork and 11 victories to a program returning from a four-win season with a new coaching staff and more than two dozen veteran player additions through the transfer portal.
Although he usually deflects questions about his own play by praising his teammates, Williams admits leadership “means everything” to him.
“I’ve been trying to lead more,” he added. “Being in a position where you can go and do something bigger, or do something that you’ve always dreamed of as a child, it brings that understanding that the time is right now.”
From his first weeks in Los Angeles, Williams welcomed the responsibility of organizing and motivating this group of new teammates. He swiftly cemented friendships across the roster with his charisma and upbeat personality.
“Talk about a dude you can count on for anything,” USC left guard Andrew Vorhees said. “A guy who genuinely cares, is supportive in every way, really tries to be a guy that brings people together. It’s a brotherhood to him.”
USC went 11-1 in the regular season, and Williams put up one spectacular game after another down the stretch, capped by rivalry victories over UCLA and Notre Dame. Although the Trojans missed out on the College Football Playoff after losing the Pac-12 title game to Utah while Williams hobbled through the evening with a hamstring injury, No. 8 USC will finish its turnaround season in the Cotton Bowl against Tulane.
Williams is the third winner of the AP award in six years for Riley, who also coached Oklahoma quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018) to Heisman trophies in the same years.
USC is enjoying its best season since the tenure of former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans now have their first AP Player of the Year since those glory days. Quarterback Matt Leinart won the award in 2004, and tailback Reggie Bush claimed it the next year.
Both went on to claim the Heisman Trophy, and Williams is favored to claim USC’s record eighth as the school’s first finalist since 2005.
Williams, Stroud, Duggan and Bennett are the finalists for the Heisman, which will be presented in New York on Saturday. The winner of the AP award has differed from the Heisman winner just twice in the past two decades.