Caleb Williams is solidifying his position as USC’s starting quarterback. Houdini

Long before he would tap dance across the Coliseum field last Saturday, dodging and dipping and darting through defenders in a way no other USC quarterback ever has, Caleb Williams was already a master in the art of escape.

The skills that would one day make him a scrambling savant were born largely out of necessity. Growing up, Williams played regularly with older kids. The cousins he often saw were older. His best childhood friends — Gary, Michael, Malik and DJ, to name a few — were older. Most were much bigger too.

“They were huge,” USC’s sophomore quarterback recalled during the summer. And by no means did they take it easy on the smaller, younger kid in their crew. So Williams had to get creative.

His size wouldn’t matter, he quickly learned, if he couldn’t be caught.

“That was always one of my things,” Williams said Wednesday. “Once I got it, I’d just kind of duck under — duck under legs, anything like that. I took a little pride in it when I was younger. Now, just trying to go out there and win the game and play to the best of my ability. Whatever it takes is what it’s going to take for me.”

It took a series of stunning escapes from Williams last week before the Trojans finally sped past Arizona State to secure a 42-25 win. During one early third down, Williams flung a charging defender over his shoulder, before nearly juking another out of his shoes. Later, Williams took off, pump-faked to shake one Sun Devil, spun past another, then stopped on a dime along the sideline to avoid a third.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs the ball during a win over Rice on Sept. 3.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“I turn around, he looks like he’s about to be sacked and all of a sudden he Houdinis out of it, and we have a 20-yard gain.”

— Travis Dye, USC running back, on Caleb Williams escaping defenders

“I feel like it’s just his will to make the play,” receiver Jordan Addison said. “He wants to do anything he can to get the first down or score a touchdown.”

Running back Travis Dye has a different view.

“It’s black magic,” Dye joked last Saturday. “I turn around, he looks like he’s about to be sacked and all of a sudden he Houdinis out of it, and we have a 20-yard gain.”

One might argue Williams has resorted to witchcraft a bit too often in recent weeks as he has faced a constant siege within the pocket. The quarterback was pressured on 19 of 44 dropbacks (43%) in USC’s narrow win over Oregon State, before facing 17 pressures on 43 dropbacks (40%) against Arizona State.

The major difference, on paper, between the two performances was how well Williams still managed to throw in the face of Arizona State’s extra pressure. After completing only five of 13 passes with a compromised pocket in Corvallis, Williams was a stellar nine of 13 for 120 yards under the same circumstances last Saturday. Two of his three touchdown passes came while scrambling, with Sun Devils defenders in pursuit.

Asked if he’s worried how often Williams has been on the run, USC coach Lincoln Riley shook his head.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Riley said. “That’s great if the pocket is clean all day. That’s fine. But I mean, in modern day college football, that doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t happen in the pros much either. That’s why you’re seeing an influx of guys who give you that ability and can make things happen.

“For him — as the OC, as the head coach — yeah, you want to see it all clean and perfect all the time. But as a quarterback coach, you’ve got to make the plays that are there.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scrambles for yards against Rice on Sept. 3.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scrambles for yards against Rice on Sept. 3.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Few, if any, passers have made those plays like Williams this season. No quarterback in college football has created more time to throw under pressure (4.5 seconds), and only one in the past five years (Liberty’s Malik Willis) has managed to extend pressure plays for longer. The next closest this season among Power Five quarterbacks is Washington State’s Cam Ward, who’s a full two-tenths of a second behind Williams at 4.3 seconds.

It’s rare, even with that extra time, that Williams finds himself in a rush.

“You don’t want to let someone make you feel rushed,” Williams said. “You don’t want any of that. You go through your progressions, and if you feel something, you get up, you get out. You get up and you deliver, you get out and you run.”

And if you’re a pass catcher, you keep your eyes peeled.

“We scrimmage it all the time because with him, he can escape anything,” tight end Malcolm Epps said. “There were a couple plays I was like, ‘Damn, he got sacked. Oh, we’re still running.’ It was one of those. So with him, you gotta keep going or you might miss a play.”

With each passing week, the extraordinary escapes have become almost run-of-the-mill to his teammates.

“You kind of become desensitized to it after awhile,” left guard Andrew Vorhees joked. “To us, it’s Caleb. We see it all day, every day.”

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