Monday Rewind: Caleb Williams and Wisconsin, ASU's mess, UCLA's surge
Welcome back to the Monday Rewind. Let’s dive in.
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst has reportedly hired Bobby Engram to serve as the Badgers’ new offensive coordinator. Engram spent the last three seasons as the tight ends coach of the Baltimore Ravens, overseeing the development of All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
Engram comes with two key ties: one to UW’s staff and one to a major transfer portal quarterback. The two coaches had previously worked together while Chryst was at Pittsburgh and Engram’s son, Dean, currently plays for the Badgers as a corner. Engram is also close with the father of Oklahoma transfer quarterback Caleb Williams, according to 247Sports, and Williams played his high school ball with Dean.
With the new assistant coach headed to Wisconsin, the buzz around a Caleb-Williams-to-Wisconsin coup grew quickly from “oh, that’s a cute story” to “wait, is this actually happening?”
On3’s Gerry Hamilton reported that Wisconsin was a true contender to land Williams on Jan. 25. Rival’s Wisconsin writer, Jon McNamara, reported a few days later Wisconsin had moved into a position to get the deal done. Now, Williams is still crystal-balled to USC by 247 writers both locally in Southern California and nationally, and there were conflicting reports on Monday about a possible phone call that took place between Williams and Wisconsin during which he said he wasn’t coming, but the deadline to enroll in classes for the spring semester at USC was Jan. 28 and that date came and passed without any public declaration from Williams.
Unless he privately enrolled and is waiting to make an announcement (maybe stealing the show on National Signing Day?), Williams missed the window to be able to participate in spring ball with the Trojans, if that is in fact where he ends up.
Should he ultimately pick USC, would it have been beneficial to both Williams and the Trojan offense to have him around for spring ball? Absolutely. It’s going to be a new attack with new faces all over the field and the more reps you have to build continuity as an offense before the season the better you can hit the ground running. There’s also an element in all this that should be explored with regards to how such a drawn-out process looks to his future teammates. If it’s going to be USC, why has it taken this long?
On the other end, is it necessary for Williams to participate in spring ball? Not to the extent it would be for a quarterback who has no familiarity with the language or landmarks used in a Lincoln Riley offense.
That Williams “missed” (used loosely) that Jan. 28 deadline is either super revealing if you have a Wisconsin area code or a great big nothing burger if you live in Los Angeles.
That Williams is even considering Wisconsin is incredible.
“The family is weighing their options and Carl Williams, his dad, told me last night, ‘NFL, not NIL’ is the guiding light of what the family is doing,” ESPN college football insider Pete Thamel reported a few weeks ago. “They want to go to the place that best prepares him for the NFL and best prepares him to be the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.”
I’ve been to Madison. It’s a wonderful college town. But Wisconsin cheese curds have a better chance of being a No. 1 NFL Draft pick than a Wisconsin quarterback.
A few fast facts on the Badgers:
- Wisconsin has had three quarterbacks selected in any round of the NFL Draft since 1990.
- Wisconsin has never had a quarterback drafted in the first two rounds of the modern NFL Draft.
- Wisconsin has only had four first-round draft selections this century from players who weren’t either defenders or offensive linemen, and three of them were running backs.
- Russell Wilson is currently the only former Wisconsin quarterback on an NFL roster.
- Since 2000, non-Wilson Wisconsin quarterbacks have started a combined 14 games in the NFL.
If the guiding light is looking at what Russell Wilson did in a Badger uniform, Williams could do it anywhere. Russell Wilson was drafted because Russell Wilson was good enough to be drafted, not because he was developed by a specific program, and the same will be true for Williams. If Williams went to FAU and played the next two seasons as a producer for a middling Group of Five team, he’d still have a shot at being a first-round draft pick when he entered the NFL.
If he wants to be No. 1, there’s only one coach who has had multiple quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall since the turn of the century, and that’s Lincoln Riley. If Williams had NFL aspirations when he picked Oklahoma as a high school recruit, thinking Riley was his best bet to develop that NFL pedigree, why would that calculus change if Riley’s at USC, one of college football’s most recognizable blue bloods?
But beyond that, if Williams wants to be No. 1 overall, going to a system that takes the burden off the quarterback seems like a curious move.
Take the service academy teams out of the equation, and Wisconsin was the second-most run-heavy team in college football last season with a run rate of 64%. The Badgers’ run rate was the 30th-highest in FBS football in 2020, the eighth-highest in 2019, the fourth-highest in 2018, the 13th-highest in 2017, and seventh-highest in 2016.
If you’re wondering about that little blip, it coincided with Graham Mertz taking over the offense and Wisconsin looking to change up what has made it so successful over the last decade-plus. And that little departure should serve as the cautionary tale for Williams.
Mertz was a high 4-star prospect from the 2019 class—a top-100 kid—who earned an All-American Bowl invite and dazzled in front of a national audience. The Badgers sat him behind Jack Coan during the 2019 season and then pushed Coan to the side when injuries paved the way for Mertz to take over in 2020.
In his first career start, Mertz completed 20 of his 21 pass attempts for 248 yards and five touchdowns. Mertz had arrived. Many overlooked that the opponent was Illinois. A week later, he completed 12 of his 22 pass attempts for 127 yards and two scores in a win over Michigan.
Over his next three games (all losses), Mertz threw it 113 times, completed 56% of his passes, and threw five interceptions against just one touchdown. Wisconsin won its last two games of the season, and coincidentally enough it was with Mertz attempting only 20 and then 17 passes.
In 2021, rumors began circulating that Wisconsin would look for a transfer quarterback as Mertz again struggled. He completed only 60% of his passes and threw 16 interceptions on the season. In games where Mertz attempted at least 25 passes, Wisconsin was 0-3 and Mertz had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1:7. In games where he was under 25, Wisconsin was 9-1.
The Badgers want to run the football. They have an All-American-caliber running back in Braelon Allen. The quarterback that enters that offense adapts to the offense, not the other way around. Mertz has shown virtually no development as a passer since arriving in Madison. And the incoming offensive coordinator hasn’t ever called plays before. What about that situation is more appealing to an NFL-hopeful than what USC has to offer?
The Trojans don’t have to win 10 games in 2022 for Williams to remain high on draft boards, and USC has a better path to the College Football Playoff than Wisconsin in 2023. The Big Ten has Ohio State, and with all due respect to Utah, the Utes are not the same year-in, year-out Death Star the Buckeyes are.
Riley’s offensive philosophies are everywhere in the NFL right now. The Badgers’ are not.
To be clear, Williams has agency to do whatever he wants, and that’s a great thing. He can make a name for himself on his own terms. All the power to him. He owes USC nothing. He owes Riley, who put him in this situation, nothing.
But Wisconsin would have been a head-scratching decision nonetheless.
What’s happening at Arizona State
This week, ASU offensive coordinator Zak Hill resigned. According to reports from The Athletic and Sun Devil Source, the three ASU assistant coaches who had been placed on paid administrative leave last summer were given the option to resign or be fired. All three have exited.
Members of Arizona State’s athletic department are expecting Level I violations to be handed down by the NCAA at some point this calendar year, per Sun Devil Source. NCAA investigators have reportedly been told during interviews that both head coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce took part in alleged recruiting violations as well.
As The Mercury News’ Jon Wilner pointed out: ASU is an easy target for the NCAA to hammer and make an example of. The school isn’t a power player in the Pac-12 or the CFP title races, but it’s still a Power Five program. If allegations are true and it showed a complete disregard for restrictions on meeting with recruits during a pandemic, the NCAA can punch hard without fear of backlash from the rest of the college football public.
If the NCAA does hand down Level I violations and ASU gets hit with any kind of punishment, you’d think changes would be coming for the football program. Edwards would presumably lose his job. Athletic director Ray Anderson would have to be in hot water as well.
The question worth asking now is a simple one: why wait?
If four assistants have already been let go as a byproduct of the process, then there’s enough of a case to fire for cause both Edwards and the guy who allegedly ran the show. Whether Edwards knew about it or not, it’s his responsibility as the head coach to know what’s going on in his program and be accountable for it.
I never like to advocate for a coach to lose his job, but in this specific situation would it be better to reset your program now—before spring ball—and give a new staff a bit of a runway into the 2022 season, or be forced to make a decision near or during the season and run the risk of slogging through a lost campaign? The players and fans don’t deserve that.
And a 25-18 record with one bowl win in four years isn’t enough of a reason to keep a coach bringing this kind of attention to the university.
UCLA’s next level
The Bruins have won six games in a row. The average margin over the entire span is 14.2 points a game. The last two games have featured 24-point and 23-point blowouts without the team’s best individual scorer—Johnny Juzang (COVID protocols).
UCLA is doing it with defense. The Bruins rank ninth nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. They are the only team in the Pac-12 to rank top-three in defensive efficiency, eFG defense, 3-point defense, forced turnover rate, allowed free throw rate, and steal rate against Pac-12 competition. That’s a defense with no holes.
“We’re going to win or die trying,” head coach Mick Cronin said recently, per SI. “UCLA is the greatest four letters in sports, and we want the players to use the brand. But there’s going to be no renting of the four letters. While here, we play to win, and there is no concession on that. That will be all that matters when you put the jersey on.”
After dominating then-No. 3 Arizona 75-59, handing the Wildcats their first conference loss of the season, UCLA touted its want-to. “I learned a long time ago effort matters,” Cronin said after that game. “Our effort was awesome.”
And that was the case once again when the Bruins crushed Stanford on Jan. 29. Playing their third game in five days while missing their leading scorer and their best individual defender, and seeing Jaime Jaquez Jr. limited by an ankle issue, the Bruins held their opponent to a season-low 43 points.
“When guys are defending because they want to, when guys are trying to tip passes because they want to, when guys are going after loose balls not because I’m making them,” Cronin said after the Stanford game, “you can tell when a team’s just trying to win at all costs, and if you don’t win you don’t win, but you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Cronin does extremely well to build a culture within his program. This team has its sights set squarely on big things. This week’s rematch with Arizona should be a fun one.