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NFL confidential: Scouts assess USC’s Caleb Williams, UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson

The USC-UCLA game appears a toss-up but NFL scouts have a definite opinion on whether Trojans’ Caleb Williams or Bruins’ Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a better NFL prospect.

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UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, left, and USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, left, and USC quarterback Caleb Williams. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times; Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The NFL scouts will arrive at the Rose Bowl on Saturday with their binoculars and notepads at the ready. They will watch from the press box with great interest, not because they’re pulling for USC or UCLA but because millions of dollars could be at stake.

Both rosters are filled with Saturday players who dream of playing on Sundays, and many of those prospects will wind up in NFL camps next summer.

The quarterbacks are of particular interest in this year’s crosstown rivalry, with UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson on one side and USC’s Caleb Williams on the other.

As they have for the last 16 years, two NFL team scouts opened their notebooks for the Los Angeles Times to give some honest, unvarnished appraisals of the talent on the field. The participating scouts have changed over the years, but the concept remains. They spoke on condition of anonymity — identified as Scout 1 and Scout 2 — because of the competitiveness of their jobs and the sensitivity of the information. They represent NFL teams in both conferences.

First, the quarterbacks. Both evaluators strongly favor Williams when it comes to playing at the next level, although the USC standout won’t be eligible for the draft until spring 2024, so the scouts haven’t studied him closely.

In their opinion, there’s a real chance Williams could be the No. 1 overall pick.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) evades a sack attempt by California linebacker Henry Ikahihifo (16).

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) evades a sack attempt by California linebacker Henry Ikahihifo (16). Williams’ ability to pass and run makes him a prime NFL draft prospect. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s kind of hard not to notice him,” Scout 1 said. “He would probably have been the top quarterback prospect last year, and this year he might be the top one as well. So he could be next year. He’s got a big arm, he’s athletic, he’s fairly accurate. He can throw on the move. I’m excited to study him when he actually comes out.”

Scout 2 happened to be at Oklahoma where the then-freshman Williams, who played for the Sooners at the time, made his starting debut against Texas Christian.

“They announced before the national anthem who the starting quarterback would be, and the crowd just went bananas,” Scout 2 said. “[Williams] just has that `it’ factor, the moxie, the confidence, the athletic ability, the arm talent. He’s got the timing and the accuracy, but he’s also got a lot of the things that you’re looking for that are instinctive values that you can’t teach.”

Thompson-Robinson will leave UCLA after this season with several school records, including touchdowns passes and possibly yards passing. His NFL stock has been on the rise.

“He’s playing his butt off this year,” Scout 1 said. “He’s a guy who has improved every season. If we’d have talked about him this time last year, I wouldn’t have the same thing to say about him. But he’s a good athlete, throws well on the move. I do think he struggles seeing the field a little bit. I can see him going late in the draft as a developmental No. 3 type guy.”

The UCLA quarterback’s mobility figures to help him in the pros.

“Especially now with the way the league is going, anytime you have a guy that can move off the spot, and he’s athletic, and he, you know, he can throw on the move, and he can give you a little bit as a runner, that obviously adds to your offense and allows you to be more dynamic,” Scout 1 said. “You have to have the ability to escape and improvise, and this league can move off the spot you’re going to struggle and he can, he can certainly do that.

“I think the transition, not just for him but a lot of these young quarterbacks coming out, is going to be hearing the play coming in on your headset, regurgitating the whole play in the huddle — these guys don’t even huddle — and then making the pre-snap reads on your own as opposed to getting it signaled in from the sideline. That just takes these guys some time.”

Scout 2 said he has written multiple reports on Thompson-Robinson over the years in case the quarterback decided to leave school early.

“I’ve never been a big fan, but I’ll say this: He has played so much better this year than he has in the past,” Scout 2 said. “It’s showing on the field with the production he’s having on game day. He’s actually distributing the ball around, he’s sitting in the pocket, he’s utilizing his athletic ability within the scheme of the offense. And he’s getting good yards.

“In the past, I’ve always felt like he was out there playing football like you would at a park — just you, me and a bunch of our buddies. Now, he’s making a quick decision, getting the ball out on time and throwing a good, accurate, catchable ball.”

USC transfer receiver Jordan Addison too will have lots of binoculars trained on him. He has scored 10 touchdowns of 20-plus yards in his first with the Trojans.

Scout 1 said it’s possible Addison could be drafted in the back half of the first round, noting: “He can play outside because he’s got speed and he’s a hell of a route runner. I think you play inside just because the route runner, the twitch, ability to separate. He’s savvy, loose hips. He can attack guys’ leverage. He’s got good speed to threaten downfield. His hands were an issue for me a little bit in the past. But they’re more consistent this year. He kind of has everything you want out of your starting receiver, except size and strength. He’s not a big guy at all. But if he’s got speed, you know, you can kind of make up for it.”

Scout 2 called Addison an “elite route runner,” but said his relatively slight build — 6 feet, 175 pounds — could be an issue.

USC receiver Jordan Addison (3) advances the ball against Utah.

Some scouts believe speedy USC wide receiver Jordan Addison might be able to sneak into the first round of the NFL draft. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

“You worry about the size,” Scout 2 said. “You worry about, like, is he as tough? Can he take shots over the middle? What’s the durability going to be like? He’s got to have to work on trying not to take those big hits and slipping through and that kind of stuff. But he’s a really good route runner. He can separate. You love his ball skills. He goes up and makes some spectacular catches, highlight-reel catches.”

Raw power is not an issue for 220-pound UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet, the Pac-12’s leading rusher with an average of 143.1 yards per game.

Scout 1 envisions Charbonnet being selected early on Day 2 (second or third round) and said he could be a regular contributor on first and second down, although he might not have the speed and versatility teams look for in a third-down back.

“He’s not going to be your dynamic Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield as a receiver,” Scout 1 said. “He’s more just like a swing and check-down kind of hands guy. Not as a negative, I just don’t think it’s his strong suit.”

UCLA Zach Charbonnet runs for a big gain against Arizona.

UCLA Zach Charbonnet runs for a big gain against Arizona. Scouts say he should be able to contribute in the NFL. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But Scout 2 sees Charbonnet as surprisingly elusive, saying: “He’s actually really sneaky out in the open field. You don’t feel like he’s going to juke you, but he jukes people all the time. It’s almost comical.”

Lots of other players from both schools will get looks either as late-round picks or undrafted free agents, among them UCLA receivers Jake Bobo and Kazmeir Allen; offensive linemen Raiqwon O’Neal, Antonio Mafi, Jon Gaines and Duke Clemens; edge rusher Laiatu Latu and safety Mo Osling III.

The scouts like USC guard Andrew Vorhees, who is especially strong, and Scout 1 said, “has some nasty to his finish.”

Said Scout 2: “He’s going to be scheme-dependent. If I had to describe him he’s a big, strong, gap-scheme, down-blocking lineman who uses his brute strength to move defensive lineman versus trying to outleverage them with speed and agility. He would work best in the schemes they run in places like Pittsburgh and Baltimore.”

USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu is regarded as a ‘tweener, who might be too small to play on the NFL interior but not fast enough to be an edge rusher. Still, Scout 2 said: “You love the motor on him. That’s the first thing that pops off the tape. He’s disruptive. And his motor’s relentless. He does not quit on plays.”

Trojans running back Travis Dye is solid across the board, Scout 1 said, and could find his way onto an NFL practice squad.

“Travis is a guy who runs bigger than his size,” Scout 2 said of the 5-10, 200-pound Dye. “He’s not afraid to mix it up inside. He’s always falling forward and has a knack for just driving his legs.”

Scout 2 also mentioned USC receiver Terrell Bynum, saying: “He’ll be a good free agent. He’s going to test really well on pro day. We’re all waiting for him to come out and blow pro day up, and he’s going to get signed. If he made a roster, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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