Caleb Williams and Olu Fashanu could make NFL draft history

ByHeather Dinich ESPN logo
Thursday, October 19, 2023

WASHINGTON -- With Olu Fashanu, it was the size.

That was the first thing former DeMatha Catholic High School offensive lineman Golden Israel-Achumba noticed when he saw his rival offensive lineman on the opposing sideline in 2018.

"I'm looking at Olu like, 'Who is that guy?'" Israel-Achumba said of the now 6-foot-6, 317-pounder who is his friend and teammate at Penn State. "That guy's huge. He's not letting anything get by him."

For Caleb Williams, it was the demeanor. Whether it was seeing him as a high school freshman in 2017 or as a USC star today, the way he carried himself stood out.

"I know his look on his face, I know the body language, the way he walks, the way his arms move, the ways his feet move," Gonzaga College High School football coach Randy Trivers said. "It's the way his shoulders, his posture ... a lot of athletes under certain circumstances are going to be really, really good. But there's few athletes under circumstances that can really consistently triumph and be good. There's a fearlessness of failure."

Not only did their 2018 Gonzaga football team defeat its biggest rival, DeMatha, to win the school's first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title in 16 years, but the Eagles did it in epic fashion. The dramatic championship game, which was highlighted by SportsCenter and Good Morning America, featured three touchdowns and three lead changes -- in the final 29 seconds.

That 2018 team could again make history this spring as the only known high school team in at least the past 20 years to produce two top-five NFL draft picks in the same class. While most draft experts have Williams -- USC's starting quarterback and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner -- as the No. 1 overall pick, many also have Fashanu as the top offensive lineman and the No. 5 overall pick. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the most comparable high school duo would have been Alex Smith and Reggie Bush, who played together at Helix High in San Diego, but weren't in the same draft class. Smith was No. 1 overall in 2005, while Bush was No. 2 in 2006.

But before they hear their names called in the draft, Williams and Fashanu both have College Football Playoff dreams to attend to, continuing this Saturday. Williams, coming off the worst performance of his college career in a 48-20 loss to Notre Dame, will look to bounce back against Utah, a team that beat the Trojans twice last year. Fashanu and Penn State head to Columbus to take on No. 3 Ohio State in a game that will go a long way toward determining Big Ten supremacy.

In July, Williams said being so close to the CFP last year and ultimately falling out of the top four on Selection Day frustrated and fueled him.

"It bothers me because I play for championships," he said. "I don't play for anything else."

He and Fashanu have the high school history together to prove it.

WILLIAMS AND FASHANU have emerged in the national spotlight, but both left their prints all over Gonzaga, a 203-year-old private school located about four blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

The school's football field is connected on one side by the red brick St. Aloysius Church and the U.S. Government Publishing Office on the other. The Eagles compete in one of the nation's most elite high school football conferences, with its best teams annually producing some of the top collegiate players at the Power 5 level.

Virginia Tech running backs coach Elijah Brooks was the head coach at DeMatha when Williams was choosing where he would go to high school.

"Losing Caleb in the high school recruitment might have been my worst recruiting loss ever," he said. "He had come to my camps for many years, and he was almost a shoo-in to come to DeMatha. When that didn't happen, I knew we lost a talented player. But I had no idea he was gonna be this phenomenal. And he is exactly that."

Sam Sweeney, then a junior at Gonzaga and a contender for starting quarterback, conceded he wasn't thrilled a freshman quarterback came in and won the starting job. Sweeney and Williams had a good relationship. They were always together, going to meetings and extra film sessions, and training with the same personal quarterbacks coach -- Chris Baucia, a DeMatha alum.

"It was very unique to me, just because you sit two years ... waiting to be the starting quarterback and then you come your junior year, and this freshman shows up and you kind of question it," said Sweeney, now a star lacrosse player at Penn State, "but now seeing what he's done ... it makes sense now."

Trivers said it wasn't a difficult decision to start Williams as a freshman.

"We had opportunities for him to show us his level of maturity in the meeting room," Trivers said, "his level of maturity and toughness in the strength and conditioning program, his level of maturity and competence on the practice field. And when he was doing those things over and over again, it just became clear that, OK, this goes against what my norm would be with a freshman quarterback for sure, but this guy, that's what he is. And he's ready."

While Williams had football tunnel vision from an early age, Fashanu was a basketball player who didn't immerse himself in football until he was at Gonzaga. One of Fashanu's former Gonzaga teammates, current Wake Forest offensive lineman Luke Petitbon, said all of the offensive linemen during the 2018 season were big, but Fashanu "was just bigger than all of us."

"Gonzaga is a school where the athletes and regular students, everyone is such good friends," he said, "so Olu would be with a friend who doesn't play football and he's like nine inches taller than him and outweighs him by 150 pounds, but it's normal at Gonzaga, which makes it cool because it's not just athletes in a clique hanging out with each other. It's definitely funny seeing Olu next to people who are 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds."

Petitbon said he first spotted Fashanu in the stands at Buchanan Football Field for the school's annual cookout for freshmen. The freshmen football players had already reported, and Fashanu hadn't even signed up yet.

"At the time he was probably like 6-foot-4, kind of skinny," Petitbon said. "He's not as big as he is now, but he was still a massive human being, and I talked to him. He never played football before."

Fashanu signed up for freshman football, but it wasn't until Petitbon's junior year that they played side-by-side. During their senior year, Fashanu had moved to his current position at left tackle, and Petitbon was at right guard.

Petitbon, who said he is on a text chain with Fashanu and a few other former Gonzaga linemen, said they still laugh about going to Outback together in his hometown of Annapolis, Maryland, where "Olu would eat an ungodly amount of food."

"The Outback appetizers are ginormous," Petitbon said, "and Olu would eat an entire cheese fries and a Bloomin' Onion, and a bunch of wings and then have a big steak afterwards."

Multiple former teammates and coaches described Fashanu as a "gentle giant" who has continued to develop, including at Penn State. Trivers said Williams was "more refined" when he arrived at Gonzaga because he had more experiences leading up to high school, while Fashanu had potential "with a capital 'P.'"

"You could see his body, he had good length and as a young kid, decent enough thickness to know this guy has a chance to be a big dude, but he was very green, very raw because he really had no football experience coming in," Trivers said.

Gonzaga assistant coach Justin Young, who coached Fashanu on the offensive line during his freshman and sophomore seasons, has also been the team's strength and conditioning coach. Young said Fashanu was "molding clay," as far as improving his flexibility in the weight room, but knew from the start he was "a first-rounder based on his size and his potential."

"To be honest and completely humble, we just assumed he would be this type of player because of his build, just a massive young man walking these hallways," Young said. "... He didn't come in at the strongest but he definitely attacked getting strong. He was definitely a four-year project, three-and-a-half-year project as far as getting his flexibility where it needed to be. Caleb on the other hand, he's different. He came in there prepared and ready, came to our morning workouts as a freshman prepared and ready and in shape. He just attacks some of the hardest things we try to give our players and attacks them with a smile. He's built for whatever. He just plays quarterback."

IN ORDER TO make it to the WCAC title game, Gonzaga had to finish as one of the top four teams in the 10-team conference.

"No one thought we were gonna be good," said Sweeney, then a receiver for Gonzaga. " ... We were written off from the start, even in the summer, and we just put our heads down and worked and used that as motivation."

Gonzaga won its first six games, but stumbled down the stretch. The Eagles finished the regular season with three losses, including a triple overtime loss to DeMatha, located about 11 miles from the heart of the nation's capital. The storied history between the two all-boys Catholic schools is comparable to "a miniature Ohio State versus Michigan," said Wolverines defensive back Josh Wallace, who played the same position for DeMatha.

The regular-season loss to DeMatha ensured Gonzaga would lose its division for the second straight season. Two weeks later, on Nov. 3, Gonzaga lost again, this time on its home field to St. John's in the nation's oldest Catholic high school football rivalry. It was a convincing 34-17 loss in front of a crowd of more than 2,500.

"They crushed us," Petitbon said. "We were going into the playoffs as the four-seed."

And they won -- against the very team that had just "crushed" them a week earlier.

Gonzaga beat St. John's, 24-14, in the WCAC semifinal that would pit them against DeMatha in the championship game. DeMatha had won four straight conference titles from 2013-2016 and produced NFL talent such as Chase Young and Anthony McFarland Jr.

"That was the thing with Gonzaga," said Indianapolis Colts safety Nick Cross, who played for DeMatha in the 2018 title game. "They were never as talented as us. They'd always find a way to get lucky and to win. They would out-fundamental us."

As determined as Gonzaga was to win its first title since 2002, the Eagles fell into a 20-0 hole in the first half of the championship game, and a 16-year-old Williams would have to lift them out of that hole.

"The main plan was to contain him, keep him in that pocket and make him make the throws that he didn't want to make," Israel-Achumba said. "We also wanted to get him and hit him in the pocket, but that was obviously hard because we had Olu stopping dudes from doing that. It was like, OK, they have a trump card -- not only one, but two."

Gonzaga trailed by three with less than a minute remaining when Williams was sacked, forcing a third-and-33 situation. Williams had injured his ankle on the play, and Trivers said that had the Eagles needed to play another game, Williams probably wouldn't have been able to participate. Ultimately no cast or surgery was needed, but Trivers called it "a fairly significant injury."

"He was laying there, I heard him say, 'My foot, my foot. I can't get up.'" Sweeney said. "And that's when I came to the realization that if he can't get up, I have to play quarterback right now with a minute left in the championship game and score. OK, that's not happening. Caleb you need to get up."

"He gets up," Trivers said, "and you see visibly, there's a real limp. That was real, for sure, but then he was able to make the throw on the next play to Sweeney, and then a couple more really good throws to finish off the game."

"Even that last play -- on [an injured] foot -- and he's throwing the ball, he's flicking his wrist and it's going 50-60 yards in the air," Sweeney said. "He was just a sophomore in high school, 16 years old. How much talent he had and his competitiveness and willingness to do whatever it takes to win. It's pretty crazy. It's still crazy to this day."

WILLIAMS, HOBBLED BY his injured ankle, heaved a 53-yard Hail Mary as time expired, and Gonzaga students prayed in the stands. He was on his own 41-yard line when he threw it, and it easily sailed about 60 yards.

Colts safety Nick Cross and Atlanta Falcons safety DeMarcco Hellams were defending the end zone when DeMatha rushed four and Williams released the ball as the clock expired.

"I didn't get enough umph in my jump to be able to knock the ball down," Cross said.

Gonzaga's John Marshall, who went on to play defense at Navy, did.

He miraculously emerged from a pile of defenders in the end zone with the game-winner from Williams. Brooks, DeMatha's coach, said there was "dead silence" on his sideline when Marshall came down with the ball, and his "heart just dropped."

Gonzaga 46, DeMatha 43.

"It was a surreal moment," Marshall said. "I didn't know where I was for a couple of seconds after I caught it."

Fans thundered onto the field, where Williams was lying flat on his back near the 50-yard line with his helmet on, before getting up to join the celebration.

Three of Williams' six touchdowns came in the final 3:03 of the game.

"Caleb is one of the best quarterbacks I've ever played against," Cross said.

Petitbon, who lined up with Fashanu for two seasons, said Williams played "like a man possessed" in the WCAC title game. Williams accounted for 480 of the Eagles' 530 yards of offense. He completed 13 of 29 passes for 359 yards, and carried the ball 20 times for 122 yards.

He even caught one pass for 9 yards.

"It was probably the best single game performance I've ever seen," said Petitbon.

"It's just the odds of hitting that is slim to none," Brooks said, "but if anyone was going to make the play, it was going to be him.

"After years have passed and seeing that not only did we lose to a good team," he said, "we might have lost to arguably the greatest quarterback -- maybe player -- to come out of the DMV area in the last 20 years. Maybe ever."

GONZAGA IS THE oldest all-boys school in Washington, D.C., but the athletic department has only retired three numbers -- one from basketball, another from hockey, and Williams' No. 18. They are displayed above the bleachers in the gym, and Williams returned in May for the dedication.

There are also framed newspaper clippings from the 2018 season hanging on the walls in Trivers' office, along with the framed and stained jersey Williams wore that season. In the locker room, the first locker has been commemorated with Williams' purple nameplate and will be reserved in his honor. In the hallway just outside and in plain view of Williams' locker, is a banner that recognizes him as D.C.'s Gatorade Player of the Year for the 2018 season, when he threw for 2,624 yards and 26 touchdowns.

His legacy is already etched in the school's history, along with Fashanu, who was named to the league's first-team offense in 2018 and was part of an offensive line that produced all Power 5 alums.

Their places in the first round of the NFL draft will only enhance that.

Israel-Achumba remembered scrolling through Instagram on his phone last season when he saw an early mock draft that had his roommate projected in the first round.

"Usually I see some guys from other schools, some of the older guys on my team," he said. "I was shook when I saw him. I'm like, whoa. It's happenin'. I sent it to him, like, 'Have you seen this?'"

Fashanu wanted his friend to stop "messing around." Then somebody else sent it to him. Then his parents. But Fashanu, who Penn State coach James Franklin said has the highest GPA of all scholarship players on the team, turned down the opportunity to possibly be among the first five offensive tackles drafted last year.

"I'd say the main two [reasons] were so I could graduate in the summer and start my master's in the fall," he said, "and also I felt like not only myself, but everyone on the team, we know that this year we could go a lot further than just the Rose Bowl."

Regardless of where Penn State winds up this postseason, NFL scouts will be watching.

"He's a no-brainer with his height, weight, length and speed," a veteran scout told ESPN's Pete Thamel this week. "He's an easy mover and makes the game look easy. He's a great kid from a great family. He'll be the first tackle taken this year."

Israel-Achumba saw the potential in his roommate the first time he looked at him as a rival.

"Couple that with Caleb Williams and the throws he was making and the scrambling, and all the magic he was doing," Israel-Achumba said, " ... every single thing he's doing in college now is what he did in high school. Same with Olu."

Current USC running back MarShawn Lloyd -- now teammates with Williams -- played against the Heisman Trophy winner that season as a running back for DeMatha.

"Still to this day, Caleb brings up the Gonzaga game," Lloyd said. "He'll wear his Gonzaga shorts, and I'll be like, 'Bro, take those off.'"

Petitbon still keeps in touch with Williams, though not as frequently as he does Fashanu and the Gonzaga linemen. He said he and Williams usually talk the most during the offseason when they're playing Call of Duty together online. ("We're both actually pretty good," Petitbon said.).

Regardless of what happens in the future, Williams and Fashanu will remain connected through their championship past.

"Having the Heisman Trophy winner, that's unique, that's rare," said Trivers, who is in his 27th season coaching high school football and has spent two decades as head coach of three different programs. "Having a guy in Olu Fashanu that's likely a first-round draft pick, that's rare. It's one thing to be a good high school player, and even a good college player -- and even a great college player -- but to be what I think is going to happen for these guys -- God keep them healthy -- these guys are going to be first-round draft choices. That's another level of talent."

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