Player Analysis

Heisman Trophy Race: Comparing C.J. Stroud and Caleb Williams

By Matt Edwards | December 1, 2022 | 3 minutes
Player Analysis

Heisman Trophy Race: Comparing C.J. Stroud and Caleb Williams

Heisman Trophy ballots were mailed out on Monday. While teams with contenders have been running low-key Heisman campaigns all season, now the voting has opened, things really kick into high gear. Washington has started a campaign for Michael Penix Jr using the hashtag #Penix4Heisman, USC has #He13man and gets creative credit for including Caleb Williams’ number, while Ohio State has chosen a similar route for C.J. Stroud: #He7sman.

If you don’t already know, the Heisman Trophy is awarded to the best college football player each season. At least that’s what the website claims. However, recent history suggests that it has turned into an award predominantly given to the best quarterback in the nation. While Manti T’eo came close in 2012, no defensive player has taken home the trophy since Charles Woodson won in 1997 and since 2000 just four of the winners – three running backs and one receiver – played a position other than quarterback.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that every week this season a quarterback has been at the top of the Heisman odds list. C.J. Stroud has spent most of that time as the favorite as other quarterbacks have come and gone. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker looked like a potential challenger until he suffered a season-ending knee injury. UNC’s Drake Maye had a run as the dark horse challenger to Stroud’s campaign. TCU’s Max Duggan makes an interesting case. All the while, USC’s Caleb Williams was lurking, waiting for his time to have his “Heisman moment” to become the main challenger. With the regular season finishing last weekend, C.J. Stroud and Caleb Williams look like the runaway favorites for the award. Let’s take a look at both quarterbacks, and how they have played this season.

C.J. Stroud

Stroud has been the favorite all season long and with good reason. You could make a case that his 2021 numbers were comparable, if not better than eventual Heisman winner Bryce Young. More passing yards per game, more TD’s per game, better QB efficiency, better TD-INT ratio, and more. Ohio State did lose two games while Alabama went to the National Championship. But the numbers supported his case and it makes sense he would be the favorite coming into the season.

Another reason he was the favorite coming into this season was the group of offensive talent he had at his disposal. Jaxon Smith-Njigba was coming off a record-setting season and Rose Bowl, while Marvin Harrison Jr and Emeka Egbuka completed perhaps the top receiving room in the country. When Smith-Njigba went down in week 1, Harrison Jr and Egbuka had to step up, and step up they did. Marvin Harrison Jr is a finalist for the Biletnikoff award, and Egbuka has nearly matched that production.

Caleb Williams

In his Freshman year, Williams burst onto the scene midway through last season replacing Spencer Rattler as the starter for Oklahoma. His highlights included the comeback win against Texas, the six-touchdown performance against Texas Tech, and the Alamo Bowl victory against Oregon. Expectations in Norman for the following season were sky-high, but a coaching change and a new opportunity took Williams to USC. There he was joined in LA by Mario Williams, a top WR target from Oklahoma followed, by Travis Dye from Oregon and Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison. Although it was a new spot, he stayed in the same offensive scheme and predictions for his performances were undiminished.

In fact, Williams has played so well this season and plays with a unique flair, that many have compared him to Patrick Mahomes. I personally find it difficult to compare a college player with a quarterback that has had the best early stages of a career in NFL history, but it’s easy to see why people are making the comparison. He has incredible pocket presence, keeps his eyes downfield and uses different arm angles.

Comparison

One of the biggest differences between these two quarterbacks is the touchdowns to turnover ratio. Caleb Williams has been responsible for 44 TDs with only 3 turnovers, that’s 14.6 TDs for every turnover. Based on a quick perusal of cfbreference that is the best rate in college football history! C.J Stroud’s 5.3 ratio (He has one fumble on the season) is nothing to shake a stick at, just doesn’t stack up against Williams’ numbers.

While most of the other stats are similar for the two, another big difference is aggressiveness. C.J. Stroud throws a much higher percentage of his passes into tight windows. This might be due to trusting his receivers to come down with tough passes (not a bad plan when you are throwing to future 1st round draft picks), or maybe it’s just a difference in scheme. As you might expect with him throwing passes into tight windows, this leads to a much lower YAC.

Passing Map

Let’s take a look at some passing maps. The top one is Caleb Williams, high usage on “pop” pass fly sweeps, as well as screens and quick passes to the flats. Though he mixes in some deep shots down the right sideline to help bolster his average depth of target. C.J. Stroud throws the ball around a little bit more evenly around the field. High usage areas include the middle distance hash throws and down the sideline around 10-15 yards. Digs, Corners, hole shots, and back shoulder fades are where he gets most of his work done. This makes sense when you’re throwing to human highlight reel Marvin Harrison Jr who can come down with practically anything thrown in his general direction.

Speaking of pass placement, let’s look at the pass placement for each quarterback.

Caleb Williams is more accurate (based on distance from center mass) than CJ Stroud. On the other hand, CJ Stroud is getting a lot of help from his receivers. If you are throwing the ball to Marvin Harrison, you can get away with throwing the ball up 9 feet or higher above the ground knowing he has a great shot at coming down with the completion.

Conclusion

After pulling the ball on a zone read play with just under 40 seconds left, Caleb Williams ran 6 yards into the endzone for a touchdown. On his way back to the sideline he hit the Heisman pose. That play may not have been the “Heisman moment” people remember, it might have been the scramble and throw down the sideline a few plays before that. It might be an overall season’s worth of scrambles, touchdowns, and wild throws. He is the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman trophy, and the stats back that up. Some advice for Caleb Williams, do a few extra curls (that trophy is heavy), and work on a Heisman-based slogan for his fingernails.

Matthew Edwards
Head of American Football Analysis
@thecoachedwards

By Matt Edwards | December 1, 2022

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