PALO ALTO — USC safety Max Williams had just finished speaking, and another question was being asked at the press conference following the 10th-ranked Trojans’ 41-28 win over Stanford.
But head coach Lincoln Riley leaned toward the microphone and interrupted.
“I’ll say too, this guy’s been a warrior for us,” Riley said. “He had a little medical thing done after spring. He could have easily not pushed through spring, had it done then. He didn’t do it. He waited, got every single rep he possibly could, fought through it. This guy, in a lot of ways, embodies what we want in this program: The toughness and the desire to be out there.”
Riley was finished, and again a new question was being asked. But this time, quarterback Caleb Williams interrupted.
“I’ll add to that, he’s played, since I’ve got here, he’s made me better,” the QB said. “And then too, like Coach said, he fought through all those little injuries and he came back in fall and played different positions on defense, wherever they needed him. And like Coach said, that’s kind of what we need and the players we need mentality-wise.”
Riley and Caleb Williams were around for the minor injuries that Max Williams fought through, but his journey to Saturday, when he intercepted a pass on the opening drive and later forced a fumble on the goal line, is longer and more fraught than that.
It was the spring of 2021 when Williams tore his ACL, the same injury he suffered his senior year in high school. His path to a starting job as a redshirt sophomore was over. Instead, he was on the road to rehab.
Williams never took that as an off-year, however. To the contrary, there was concern at USC that he was working too much, pushing too hard to expedite a recovery. During practices, he could be seen running the sidelines and doing plyometrics in the corner of the field, always moving.
“The kid’s a dog,” center Brett Neilon said. “He works probably the hardest on the team.”
As Riley and Caleb Williams alluded to, it did not take long for all the newcomers at USC to appreciate Max Williams’ determination and work ethic. He bounced around wherever defensive coordinator Alex Grinch asked him, and seemed likely to land as USC’s starting nickle defensive back.
But Grinch saw safety as a greater area of need, and moved Williams to free safety late in fall camp. He came up with five tackles and a quarterback hurry in the season opener.
And then he followed it up with Saturday’s seven-tackle performance, second-most on the team. On the opening drive, he saw a pass tipped by a receiver, then by teammate Calen Bullock, then grabbed it himself and returned it 32 yards into Stanford territory to give the offense an easy launching pad.
And when the Cardinal were driving, threatening to make a game of it in the second quarter, Williams flew in and dislodged the ball from running back E.J. Smith’s hands to create a second turnover.
“This time last year, I was rehabbing from an injury on the sidelines, watching, not being able to contribute. So this makes me much more appreciative,” Williams said. “It’s just a blessing to be back out there making plays.”
Neilon distilled it to a simpler emotion for those who have watched Williams work to get to this point.
“It’s joy,” Neilon said. “He’s been through a lot and deserves all of it.”