What was it like to face Caleb Williams in high school? The players who intercepted him remember it well

Justin Jackson wasn’t supposed to be there, especially against this opponent.

Our Lady of Good Counsel already had a daunting task facing Caleb Williams-led Gonzaga before two-way standout Cam Hart — a Notre Dame commit — got hurt. Enter Jackson, a reserve who admitted he wasn’t expecting to play much. It showed early: Jackson, nervous as ever, got called for pass interference almost immediately.

“I’m like, ‘[Man], my mom’s in the crowd, too,'” Jackson said. “He can smell blood in the water.” 

It looked like things would get worse. Gonzaga was marching again when Williams lofted a ball for 6-foot-2 Navy commit John Marshall. Then came the play of a lifetime.

“It looked like it was a sluggo route,” Jackson remembers. “So it looked like it was a slant at first. Then he went to the corner, and … all I remember, I went up for it — and the receiver was definitely bigger than me — but I just went up for it and I just came down with it.

“After that pick, though, I started feeling myself. I was like, ‘Oh yeah.’ You know once you get in that zone, you feel like you can do anything.”

He could indeed do anything. Later in the game, Jackson stepped in front of another Williams pass and returned it for a touchdown, his ledger now including a touchdown saved and a touchdown scored. Good Counsel won, 38-31, and Jackson was named USA TODAY Super 25 Top Star beating out Taulia Tagovailoa, among others. The plays are the first two highlights in Jackson’s junior season highlight tape.

Jackson, who went on to be a long jumper at Pitt-Johnstown, doesn’t watch them often, though he admits he’ll probably show them to his kids one day. For now the entire experience remains a cherished memory — the nerves, the coverages, the interceptions, the win the big man on campus status that followed.

“Ain’t nobody knew of me, they were picking on me,” he said. “But they picked with me the wrong day.”

Justin Jackson picked off Caleb Williams twice in one game in 2017.
Courtesy of Justin Jackson

Before he was the shoo-in to go No. 1 in the NFL Draft, before he won the Heisman, before he transferred to USC, before he turned college football on its head by leading Oklahoma to the largest Red River Showdown comeback win ever, and before COVID-19 wiped out his high school senior season, Williams was a nightmare to defend in the renowned Washington Catholic Athletic Conference comprised of schools in and around the nation’s capital. The five schools in the WCAC’s “Capital” division have produced 75 NFL players, according to Pro Football Reference, with Stefon Diggs and Chase Young the most recognizable of its 16 active products. That number will likely grow by at least five by the end of the month, with Williams and his former teammate (and fellow first-round prospect) Olu Fashanu leading the way.

To most, Williams arrived on the scene as a freshman in 2017, earning a Washington Post All-Met honorable mention and leading Gonzaga to its first WCAC title game appearance since 2011. But DeMarcco Hellams knew what Williams was — and could be — even earlier, when the two competed in youth football.

“He was definitely always one of the most most talented little league quarterbacks as far as this is going to be his real position as far as playing quarterback,” said Hellams, a former two-way star at DeMatha Catholic who went on to play at Alabama and is now with the Atlanta Falcons. “A lot of guys, they may play quarterback in little league but get to high school, get to college and play different positions. You could always tell that quarterback was something that he wanted to do.”

Julio Ayamel was the first player to intercept Williams in high school. The Good Counsel standout remembers being in man coverage and having the tipped pass come right to him. He remembers nearly taking it all the way back and only being stopped by a horse-collar tackle that went uncalled. He remembers wishing his teammates had blocked better on his return.

More than anything, though, he remembers Williams’ incredible all-around talent.

“‘Til this day, Caleb Williams is the best quarterback I’ve ever faced in my life,” Ayamel, now a linebacker at James Madison, said. “I mean, he was making crazy throws, crazy plays with his legs. Like, it was just crazy. Like, the back shoulders that he was hitting. … Our corner [Hart] is about to get drafted — he was in great positions, and Caleb was putting it in places he couldn’t get it. He was literally a college quarterback in high school. It was crazy. And then we all know what he did in college. He’s definitely, definitely one of those ones.”

Williams broke out as a sophomore, when he was named Gatorade Player of the Year for D.C. and selected to the Washington Post All-Met first team (Hellams, a two-way star, beat him out for the Post‘s Offensive Player of the Year). But he wasn’t invincible, especially against Good Counsel, when he threw two interceptions to Jackson and another to Curtis Walker Jr.

Just like Jackson, Walker wasn’t supposed to be on the field — he normally subbed out in nickel packages — and when the ball came right to him, he was so surprised he nearly dropped it. But he recovered just in time and had an easy waltz into the end zone, the lone interception of his career and easily the most memorable, dancing with his teammates included.

“I’ve watched it occasionally, not too often,” Walker said. “But if someone asks to see the play, I’ll show it. But it’s just crazy, like, when you think about it. The future No. 1 pick, it’s just — it’s crazy to think about. My dad always exaggerates it. He’s always so excited every time I’m talking about it. He’s like, ‘You can tell your kids, you picked off the No. 1 pick.’ So, yeah, it’s crazy watching every time and thinking about it.”

A week later, Williams threw three more interceptions in a 27-21 triple-overtime loss to DeMatha, with Hellams, Dominic Logan-Nealy and Nick Cross — now with the Indianapolis Colts — all picking him off. MarShawn Lloyd, Williams’ former USC teammate and one of the top running backs in this year’s class, scored all four touchdowns for the Stags. That’s the kind of star power it took to beat Williams.

It also set the stage for one of the greatest plays in high school football history.

The only interception of Curtis Walker Jr.’s career was a pick six of Caleb Williams.
Courtesy of Curtis Walker Jr.

It’s impossible to overstate the absurdity of the 2018 WCAC championship. Even the highlights don’t do it justice. DeMatha jumped out to a 20-0 lead, with both Lloyd and Hellams finding the end zone, and it was 36-21, DeMatha, with under six minutes to go.

“Coming out the half, they start to play better,” Hellams said. “We try to keep our lead, keep our foot on the gas. I definitely felt like — and it’s no one fault — it’s just something you look back at, we probably let our foot off the gas a little bit.”

Williams, meanwhile, put the pedal to the metal, dipping, dashing and dazzling on a 30-yard touchdown run. Williams zoomed in for another score shortly thereafter, and it was suddenly 36-33. With under a minute left, Gonzaga faced a third-and-33, and Williams uncorked a perfect deep ball up the sideline to Sam Sweeney for 50 yards. He found Sweeney again to give Gonzaga its first lead of the night, 40-36, with 29 seconds left.

The Eagles’ joy was short-lived. Logan-Nealy returned the ensuing squib kick for a touchdown: 43-40, DeMatha, with 15 seconds left. As the Stags’ sideline erupted, Hellams tried to restore order.

“I’ve been playing football for a long time, so you know I’ve always had that mindset the game isn’t over until it’s over,” Hellams said. “So it’s some guys on the team telling guys the game isn’t over. You got other guys trying to celebrate early even though the game isn’t over.”

His words proved prescient. Williams completed an out route with four seconds left. And then came the wildest play of all:

“I’m pedaling to the end zone, I had (Gonzaga receiver) Justin Ball on my left side, and I was like, all right, like, he’s right here,” Cross remembers. “I don’t know if anybody else is behind me, but, I seen the ball. I was still kind of, you know, moving backwards a little bit to go try to knock it down. And I just mistimed my jump, I fall, I look over to my left, and I see the guy with the ball in his hand. I kind of poked at that, you know, to make sure it was real. And I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, like, it’s real.’

“Coaches were crying. Players were crying. And all of the Gonzaga players were celebrating and everything. So it was definitely the craziest moment or the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of, for sure.”

Gonzaga was WCAC champion for the first time since 2002. Even years later, Cross and Hellams have trouble believing or accepting John Marshall actually came down with Williams’ last-gasp heave.

“Like I said, he always knew how to throw, so you know a 60-, 70-yard throw for the game, that was really nothing nothing for him,” Hellams said. “First thing that come to my head is, ‘There’s no way, like there’s no way that I just lost my last game, my last season that I worked so hard for offensively and defensively to lose on a Hail Mary.'”

Williams finished with six total touchdowns: three passing, two rushing and one receiving. Cross compared Williams to Patrick Mahomes (who he faced in the NFL in 2022) and Brett Favre.

“He just had a great ability to throw the football,” said Cross. “You know, a great sense of feel in the pocket, great (elusiveness). Just his escapability out of the pocket, ability to extend plays. … He just had a certain moxie about him where it was like he never was really rattled. Just went out there, good play, bad play, and just, you know, kept it moving.”

Months later, Williams debuted as the No. 53 prospect in the 2021 recruiting class according to 247Sports. Buoyed by a strong summer, he was up to 17th by the time his junior season began. He was a full-blown phenom.

Nic Ware, a Good Counsel defensive back who had attended the Hail Mary game, remembers picking off said phenom like it was yesterday, splitting his coverage between two receivers and then diving in front of the intended one.

When Williams won the Heisman Trophy, the play took an even more special meaning.

“Obviously, being a guy from the DMV and obviously playing in the WCAC and just playing the best football, I think, in the nation, it was just great to see guys come from the same area, succeeding, and in this case, winning the Heisman at the highest level,” Ware said. “I definitely still watch it. Definitely not as much as around the time it happened. But here and there, I’ll go back on my Hudl and I’ll watch it or, you know, I’ll look at an Instagram clip or something like that. And my teammates do ask me sometimes, ‘How was it like playing Caleb? You know, I know you picked him off.’ So, yeah, there’s definitely some talk around that.”

But there are other Williams plays that stick, too.

“It was actually a play against us,” Ware, now at Delaware, said. “He fit the ball in perfectly, like, on the sideline, Like, to a point where it was out of reach. And I was playing perfect defense. And it was literally just a perfect throw and catch.”

Williams wasn’t always perfect, though; Ronnell McCorn had the lone pick six of Williams’ junior season.

“I had two linebackers behind me, one’s at Ohio State (Mitchell Melton), one’s at Central Connecticut (Harold Miles III),” McCorn said. “[Gonzaga] threw this play before, and I was a junior on an all-senior defense, and they were telling me, ‘As soon as one of his receivers does a certain type of thing, Caleb’s gonna throw the ball immediately.”

The screen got blown up, the pass got deflected, and McCorn had a clear route to the ball and then the end zone. He, like so many others in the exclusive club of those who picked off Williams in high school, had it lead off his highlight tape.

“What’s going through my mind is, ‘I just intercepted Caleb Williams, the No. 1 player in America.’ In high school it doesn’t really get much better than that. … That play’s by far the favorite play of my career, and I don’t know if anything will top that.”

There are plenty of differences among the players who picked Williams off in high school. Some watch the play often; others hardly at all. Some are still playing; others hung up the cleats long ago.

The uniting sentiment, though, is twofold. First, they appreciate not only Williams’ physical skills — which are obviously immense — but his approach, too: his demeanor, his competitiveness, his ability to overcome adversity. Second, they’ll be rooting for Williams, except when he’s playing against them or their favorite teams. Hellams remains in touch with Williams and plans to text him shortly after he’s drafted. Cross advises Williams to stay true to himself, even with the external pressure that comes with the territory. Ayamel is one of many who points to the pride Williams brings to the Washington, D.C., area and the WCAC, a close-knit football community.

Cross, who couldn’t prevent that fateful Hail Mary back in 2018, could get another shot at Williams this season: The Bears and Colts are 2024 opponents. Cross got his first NFL interception last year, rising above George Pickens and picking off Mitch Trubisky. He has the football from the play, and he has his framed game jersey and an action figure of the play coming his way soon.

He’s already arranged a postgame jersey swap with Williams to add to the collection. And if he can add another action figure as well, for some small measure of revenge for 2018?

“Oh definitely, definitely want that,” Cross said. “Wherever he goes, I’ll be looking forward to rooting for him and excited whenever I would get that opportunity to play against him.”

Players to intercept Caleb Williams in high school High school team After high school
Nick Cross DeMatha Maryland DB, 2022 third-round pick, entering third year with Colts
DeMarcco Hellams (twice) DeMatha Alabama DB, 2023 seventh-round pick, entering second year with Falcons
Dominic Logan-Nealy DeMatha Howard DB
Arsheen Jiles Don Bosco Prep Sacred Heart DB, transferring to Rhode Island
Julio Ayamel Our Lady of Good Counsel James Madison LB
Justin Jackson (twice) Our Lady of Good Counsel Pitt-Johnstown long jumper
Ronnell McCorn Our Lady of Good Counsel Albany EDGE, in transfer portal
Harold Miles III Our Lady of Good Counsel Central Connecticut State LB, in transfer portal
Curtis Walker Jr. Our Lady of Good Counsel Bowie State LB
Nic Ware Our Lady of Good Counsel Delaware DB
Aman Greenwood St. John’s College Syracuse DB, in transfer portal


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