How one emoji — ✌️ — ignited Caleb Williams hysteria among USC’s football faithful

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams warms up before a game against Iowa State on Nov. 20. (Alonzo Adams / Associated Press)

It was just before noon on Jan. 15 when a single emoji from USC football’s official Twitter account whipped an entire fan base into a frenzy.

It was posted without explanation. For an hour, it sat unexplained, inspiring message board threads and festering in the deepest, most paranoid recesses of USC’s fan base. But considering the context, the emoji’s arrival at that particular moment certainly appeared as if it were packed with meaning. Fans were already on pins and needles, awaiting word on whether college football’s most coveted transfer was coming to USC. A single emoji sent them spiraling.

Could this ✌️ be a sign? Was Caleb Williams on the way? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??

Since entering the transfer portal in early January, Williams hasn’t offered any clear indications he plans to follow his former coach, new Trojans coach Lincoln Riley, from Oklahoma to L.A. But all signs continue to point in that direction, and here, it seemed, USC was content to throw virtual kindling on the fire in the form of its “Fight On” emoji. When more USC accounts followed suit, sending out their own bat signals via Twitter — often, with several emojis at a time — the cryptic tweet would ignite an Internet inferno.

Nine days later, that fire is still burning. Williams remains in the portal, and USC staffers continue to send out cryptic emojis, knowingly fanning the flames as USC fans’ patience wears thinner with each passing tweet.

They won’t have to wait much longer. To participate in USC’s spring semester — and thus, spring football practice — a new transfer must be enrolled as a full-time student by Jan. 28. If Williams intends to be USC’s quarterback of the future next fall, he will almost certainly need to decide his fate by Friday.

In the meantime, the last quarterback to hold that title continues to use the transfer portal to its fullest extent. Jaxson Dart has already visited Mississippi, Oklahoma and Brigham Young since unexpectedly entering the portal soon after Williams, a decision that seemed to indicate at the time that Dart’s days as USC’s heir apparent were numbered.

Dart hasn’t decided on his destination either — perhaps as he too waits on Williams’ decision. But while its future at quarterback continues to hang in the balance, USC has set out to remake just about every other position on its roster.

In the nine days since that first emoji was sent, USC has added eight transfers through the portal, flashing its emoji bat signal over Twitter for each. The additions gave the Trojans a transfer class of 12, more than all but three programs in college football.

In the last few days alone, Riley has rebuilt USC’s backfield with two starting Pac-12 backs, Oregon’s Travis Dye and Stanford’s Austin Jones. Before that, he solidified the Trojans’ receiving corps, adding Colorado’s Brendan Rice and Oklahoma’s Mario Williams, the latter of whom visited USC with former Sooners quarterback Williams earlier this month.

With the latest addition of two linebackers from the Southeastern Conference, Alabama’s Shane Lee and Auburn’s Romello Height, the Trojans’ class of transfers ranks second in the nation, according to 247Sports.com. And that’s without Williams, the top available transfer in college football.

More clarity should be coming soon on that front. Until then, USC fans will have no choice but to continue their excruciating wait, unsure whether the next emoji might finally be followed by the transfer announcement they were hoping for all along.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.