Previews of USC coach Lincoln Riley’s first week of spring football | Sports

The first official practices of the Lincoln Riley era at USC are in the rearview mirror. So what did we learn about USC’s new diet in a week of spring football training?

Williams’ influence

Caleb Williams has seamlessly stepped into a leadership role. He may have taken a wrong turn in his first practice at USC, but the Trojans’ new QB1 looked completely comfortable at the helm of his new offense. The teammates are already delighted. Its gravitational pull within the program is powerful.

“He’s a baller,” running back Austin Jones said. “He’s a leader. Most definitely, he’s an alpha.”

These qualifications should come as no surprise after Williams smoothly took the reins from Spencer Rattler midway through the season as a rookie at Oklahoma. He will have the benefit of an entire spring and summer to settle down at USC.

“He’s one of those guys who can walk into a room with people he doesn’t know and he’s kind of a chameleon, he can fit in anywhere,” Riley said.

Higher expectations

It’s way too early to tell one way or another if Riley changed the culture of USC football. It will take some time. But judging by a week of feedback from coaches and players on the state of the program earlier this spring, it’s clear the staff is pushing players to raise their own expectations.

Wizards have been candid this week about the path their players have to take. Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom said his squad was “nowhere near where it should be.” Others spoke of players having to adapt to a new mentality. Even with Williams, Riley said he’s identified “many areas where he can improve as a player” and that the quarterback is “far from being the best player he can be.”

Raising expectations is only the first step. But it is important.

Still recruiting

Riley has already added 13 transfers, but USC is far from done with the portal. With 20 players starting and 13 to come, Riley called his new team this week “one of the most unique rosters in the history of the sport.”

If Riley continues to loot the portal as planned, it should be even more amazing by fall.

The coach made it clear this week that he expects to add 10 or more more transfers after the spring, while several more are likely to leave amid the fallout. It’s unclear where Riley plans to add, but quarterback and receiver are two positions he could focus on.

USC has just two healthy quarterbacks this spring — “It’s not ideal,” Riley said — but could potentially recover Mo Hasan from a knee injury in the fall. At receiver, assistant coach Dennis Simmons said USC “definitely needs to add some talent.”

That’s probably also true on the offensive and defensive lines – and at the linebacker too. USC isn’t really in a position to turn down talent at this point.

Running back contest

Travis Dye has a prolific pedigree. But USC might not have a clear lead until the fall. Spring reps in running backs don’t mean much. Until there is full contact, backfield assessment is impossible.

What we do know is that USC now has more all-around talent than at this point last season. It starts with Dye, who left Oregon for USC after Riley pushed him to “expose everything I can do,” said Dye, who is one of five Oregon backs at reach 3,000 yards on the ground.

He and Austin Jones showed early on that they were adept at catching passes out of the backfield; combined, they bring 150 career receptions to USC. That versatility should be more than a weapon when five-star rookie Raleek Brown enters the mix this fall.

Riley’s approach to running back has varied over the years. Last season at Oklahoma, he used Kennedy Brooks as a three-way workhorse. This season, the backfield is gearing up for a more balanced approach.

Fierce receiver competition

USC added three transfers to help redo the receiver room, and so far all three have been fixtures at both depths to start the spring.

Mario Williams is lightning fast. Brenden Rice is an impressive physical specimen. And Terrell Bynum falls somewhere in between. The question is not so much whether these new players will play, but how many returns will factor into the rotation.

Gary Bryant seems sure to carve out a role, while Tahj Washington has earned early praise. Freshman CJ Williams clearly has the talent to make an impact. Kyle Ford, Michael Jackson III and Kyron Ware-Hudson will fight throughout the fall to enter the field.

This competition, Simmons said, “is as broad [open] as this field is.”

Room to improve

Defensive end Korey Foreman and linebacker Raesjon Davis, the crown jewels of USC’s 2021 recruiting class, still have a long way to go. They were two of the nation’s top 2021 prospects. But after disappointing freshman seasons at USC, both have some stark questions to answer as sophomores.

Neither has shown their best foot yet. Foreman was limited this spring by a knee injury, which cost him crucial time learning about USC’s new defense. Davis has been healthy, but established this week that he “has time to win,” according to linebackers coach Brian Odom.

USC desperately needs both players to develop ahead of next season. The jury is still out on whether they will live up to expectations.

Slim in the front

USC has just 13 scholarship offensive linemen. It’s not ideal. Ty Buchanan’s announcement on Thursday that he was entering the transfer portal only exacerbated an already concerning depth issue up front. Of those 13, only about eight are linemen USC would trust to play in a game.

That’s just not enough depth for one season. With that in mind, the upcoming decision of five-star offensive tackle Josh Conerly Jr. looms large. A top-15 prospect, Conerly could make an immediate impact on a line with unanswered questions around the edges.

Transfer Virginia Bobby Haskins was supposed to help, but he was limited to starting the spring with a foot injury.

Tuipulotu leads

Tuli Tuipulotu leads the way on the USC defensive line. Shaun Nua spent last season coaching Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo at Michigan, two of the top talents in the upcoming draft. When asked if any of his new USC defensive linemen shared a similar mentality to either of these two, he didn’t hesitate.

“Tuli, right now,” Nua said.

It’s no surprise that Tuipulotu stands out in early spring. The only question now is how Nua and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch plan to deploy him.

“He will be everywhere,” Nua said. “He can play anything, seriously.”

Bullock’s Progress

Calen Bullock is USC’s only returning high school starter, but he’s far from a finished product. A silver liner in a dismal season, Bullock has established himself as a future standout as a rookie. But Grinch didn’t let the young security rest on those laurels.

“You see a guy who has a bit of confidence in his second year, which you would expect for a guy like that.” Grinch said. “You see elements of speed, a guy who can run the show from the back and do communications that way. Still a young player.

“What does he need to fix? He needs to become a bigger athlete. Sport demands that of you. So he’s one of those guys who needs to gain weight, gain muscle. He needs to look like a second year The things that made him a good player, give him credit as a rookie OK, well, in second year the evaluation changes.

The rest of USC’s high school should be completely different. The Trojans brought in transfer cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Latrell McCutchin, and signed three defensive backs in its 2022 class, including the state’s top prospect, Mater Dei High cornerback Domani Jackson.

Kicker responses

Alex Stadthaus is likely to be the kicker for USC. Previously a walk-on, Stadthaus entered the transfer portal in December when he wasn’t sure he could afford to continue at USC without a scholarship.

But Riley came over, offering her one. Stadthaus, in turn, removed his name from the portal, making him the most likely candidate to kick USC this fall.

The Trojans will also be breaking into a new punter with Australian rookie Atticus Bertrams. They will, too, without the help of a full-time special teams coach.

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