No college football team in the country has more intrigue surrounding its program during the spring practice schedule than USC as new coach Lincoln Riley begins the on-field effort of restoring glory to a program where the expectations include championships. The results in that department have fallen well short throughout the last decade.
Riley’s plan for achieving success immediately, at whatever level that may be, appears to be simple: use the transfer portal to bring in plug-and-play options at every level. If everyone gels together, this is a talented team of transients capable of winning the Pac-12 sooner rather than later. USC has the No. 1 transfer class in the country with all 13 players partaking in spring practice. That group includes former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams and former Sooners wide receiver Mario Williams, who along with a handful of assistant coaches joined Riley on the move from Oklahoma to USC. There are also contributors from around the Pac-12 with Riley plucking talent from Oregon, Washington and Colorado, among others.
College football has given us plenty of examples where the influx of transfer talent doesn’t fix all of a team’s problems, though. Riley and his staff will set out this spring to get the instant impact transfers and the 51 returnees who saw action last season on the same page. If USC can get what Riley has called “the most unique roster in the history of USC football” aligned, the Trojans could be the biggest turnaround story in all of college football.
In terms of the coaching staff, Riley has opted to continue working alongside a couple of former Oklahoma assistants, tapping Alex Grinch (defensive coordinator), Dennis Simmons (pass game coordinator), Brian Odom (inside linebackers) and Roy Manning (outside linebackers) to join him in Los Angeles. That familiarity helps establish standards that contributed to four straight Big 12 championships but also the experience of what didn’t work as well during a disappointing third place conference finish in 2021.
To help this group of former Sooners gets accustomed to life in the Pac-12, Riley has retained former interim coach Donte Williams (defensive backs) and hired Kiel McDonald (running backs) from Utah. And while the line of scrimmage has been a source of concern for the Trojans in recent years, fans should be encouraged with the additions of Josh Henson (offensive line, offensive coordinator) from Texas A&M and Shaun Nua (defensive line) from Michigan.
“It’s been a fun staff,” Riley said this week on his coaches’ show, “Trojans Live”. “The guys, I think, have really come together quickly. I’ve been impressed with just kind of the synergy already. As you’re sitting back and trying to build the best staff that you can, that’s something that you try to predict as much as you can, but I don’t know that you ever know exactly what’s going to happen until you put people in a meeting room together and in different situations together.”
In terms of the players, the 13-man transfer class arrives with plenty of excitement, but those additions are coming thanks in part to massive turnover all over the roster. Both starting quarterbacks Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart transferred out of the program, the team’s best wide receiver (Drake London) and best pass rusher (Drake Jackson) are off to the NFL Draft and, when it’s all said and done, there are just five starters returning on offense and three starters back on defense. The transfers are a big storyline not just because of the number or high ranking as transfer prospects, but because there are more than a dozen starting jobs up for grabs this spring.
Names to knowCaleb Williams, quarterback: A true freshman All-American in 2021, Williams had 21 passing touchdowns, four interceptions and six rushing touchdowns in 11 games of action with seven starts. He set records for the most passing yards and passing touchdowns by a true freshman in Oklahoma history, and was undoubtedly the most-coveted transfer of the offseason. Redshirt freshman Miller Moss remains from last year’s quarterback room, but his presence in the competition is more related to depth because Williams’ ceiling and his familiarity with Riley’s offensive system makes him the biggest star in the Pac-12 heading into 2021. Travis Dye, running back: Dye is one of two experienced running backs Riley brought in from the Pac-12 North, the other being Austin Jones from Stanford. In a four-year career with the Ducks, Dye ran for 3,111 yards at 6.0 yards per attempt with 21 touchdowns across 48 games with 19 starts. He also adds the ability to catch passes out of the backfield and work as a return specialist if needed. Dye’s experience of playing at a high-level in the Pac-12 in invaluable to this group, having won two conference championships during his time with the Ducks. Korey Foreman, edge rusher: Ranked as the No. 1 defensive lineman and No. 2 overall prospect in the 2021 recruiting class, Foreman just got a taste of the big stage during his true freshman season. He appeared in 11 games and totaled 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, but now that Drake Jackson is gone, it’s time for Foreman to emerge as the team’s most dangerous defensive end talent. With Foreman on the edge and All-Pac-12 first team pick Tuli Tuipulotu lining up inside, the defensive line could be a real strength for a defense that needs to take massive strides from last year’s performance. Shane Lee, linebacker: The former Alabama linebacker could end up being one of the most important players on the 2022 USC roster. Lincoln Riley has endorsed his leadership in the offseason and compared the impact of his arrival to what he saw bringing in Jalen Hurts as a transfer at Oklahoma. Lee appeared in 29 games with 13 starts for the Crimson Tide, and if he’s going to be a difference-maker, that linebacker group needs to reverse a troubling trend for USC’s defense. From 2001-16, USC opponents averaged 150 rushing yards or more per game just once (2012). For each of the five seasons since 2017, USC opponents have averaged 150 rushing yards or more per game. Spring outlook
The 4-8 record in 2021 marked USC’s fewest victories since 1991, so identifying the Trojans as a candidate for college football’s biggest single-season turnaround is both a reflection of high expectations for 2022 and acknowledgement of how bad things got last season. Riley says he and the staff haven’t spent too much time pouring over the tape from last season, and that’s probably fair to the returning players given the circumstances. After years of being on and off the hot seat, Clay Helton was fired on Sept. 14, signaling a lost season for the program after just two games.
But how quickly can the transfer talent fall into place, will the returning players mesh with the new faces (both players and coaches) and what happens if last season’s issues are not fixed prior to Week 1? The Trojans were horrendous defensively, ranking No. 112 nationally in yards per play allowed. So what’s reasonable to expect with just one offseason to correct issues? Oklahoma was No. 102 in the same stat prior to Alex Grinch’s arrival in Norman and improved to No. 63, so that can serve as a baseline for expectations.
Offensively, it’s fair to expect USC will have the most explosive attack in the Pac-12. With Williams leading the way and the skill position rooms loaded with talent, USC should be able to score points against everybody on its schedule. If there’s any lingering concerns after spring practice from a personnel perspective, look for USC to again be in the market for top transfer talent prior to the May deadline to be eligible in the fall. Riley has noted that with the “flexibility” of this roster, USC is likely not done bringing in new pieces and will be looking to do so after spring ball. He’s made the Trojans an enticing destination with the collection of talent for this 2022 season — so as if USC isn’t attractive enough in a down year, he’s building hype that’s working to his advantage in the portal as well.
Increased freedom of movement for players and the arrival of Riley have allowed USC to skip the “rebuilding” process. Much like the title-winning pro teams in Los Angeles, the Trojans are going all in on free agency and hoping they can use this talent to make a run at winning a championship.