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USC attempts to prepare for Cal finale as Lincoln Riley era unfolds

Donte Williams talks with USC players on the sideline
USC interim coach Donte Williams coaches the Trojans against Utah on Oct. 9 at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Players went to practice only to mysteriously return to the John McKay Center. Some assistants, who walked onto the USC’s practice field early, did a similar U-turn. Only a season that has hit almost every roadblock possible could turn a seemingly mundane Wednesday practice into another detour.

An impromptu meeting delayed the start of USC’s practice Wednesday, and Donte Williams didn’t walk up the tunnel toward the practice field until 25 minutes past the scheduled start time. The interim coach wore a serious expression, but once he spotted reporters waiting at the top of the ramp, he flashed a smile.

The Trojans are putting on a brave face amid one final twist to their chaotic season. Saturday’s game at California represents what might be the least consequential game in recent USC history. Neither team has bowl aspirations. Because they were both out of the conference title race when Cal (4-7, 3-5 Pac-12) suffered a COVID-19 outbreak in November, the matchup was rescheduled for the day after the Pac-12 title game. Fans might want to show up with sleeping bags for the 8 p.m. kickoff time.

On the other side of the postponed season finale waits an uncertain future for USC. Newly hired head coach Lincoln Riley patrolled the sideline at practice this week.

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Raised for greatness, Crenshaw’s Donte Williams is the first Black head football coach at USC, the program his mother dreamed he’d join.

The next era of USC football is already here. But the Trojans (4-7, 3-5) aren’t ready to say goodbye to this season despite all of the team’s struggles.

“I don’t really think we looked that far ahead in the future because we still have a game to play against Cal,” receiver Gary Bryant Jr. said Tuesday. “We just want to go 1-0 today, 1-0 tomorrow, 1-0 the next day, and win on Saturday and go out with a bang for the seniors.”

On Tuesday, players tried to deflect almost every question about the program’s future by saying they were focused on Cal. On Wednesday, the Trojans used the team meeting that delayed practice for about 45 minutes to “get on the same page.”

“The biggest thing is making sure everyone in this program, not just the players, not just the full-time guys, but everyone focuses on Cal,” Williams said. “And that’s what my focus continues to be, and that’s what my focus will continue to stay.”

Williams said the meeting was energetic and players responded by going out in shoulder pads when he gave them permission to ease off into just helmets for the shortened session. But Wednesday’s practice was one of the most sparsely attended of the season, with many backups and walk-ons absent from the field. Williams said some of the absences were because of injuries and allowing players to catch up on academics as the term approaches finals week.

With no postseason hopes and a fanbase looking ahead to the Riley era, players said they were playing on behalf of their senior teammates who will suit up for the Trojans one last time Saturday. But Williams emphasized that it’s “about all of those guys that this could be their last game in a USC uniform.”

As Lincoln Riley assembles his USC coaching staff, he’s starting by pulling from his former staff at Oklahoma.

That group is much larger than normal years. Beyond just seniors and draft-eligible juniors who could test the NFL waters, extreme roster turnover is expected with almost every coaching change.

As it has for several other programs whose seasons already ended, the transfer portal beckons for misfit players. One of those high-profile names could be quarterback Kedon Slovis, whose starting role was in jeopardy all season even before he missed two games because of a leg injury.

Most assistant coaches probably won’t be retained, and Riley has already brought in replacements at defensive coordinator and wide receivers. The changes extend to the support staff, where Riley invited his former Oklahoma strength coach and director of football operations to L.A.

No one, especially Williams, whose inexperience was magnified when he was thrust into a nearly impossible interim job, is safe.

The 39-year-old L.A. native alluded to the uncertainty in a tweet after practice Wednesday, saying “CHARACTER of a person and CULTURE of an organization isn’t truly shown or known until you’re hit with adversity! Define who YOU are.” He punctuated the tweet with the hashtag “Built different.”

“Everybody talks about the players and the full-time assistants, but the operational recruiting, the strength department, all those people, they don’t know what their future holds after Saturday, right?” Williams said. “I need everybody focused on what’s going to happen on Saturday and that’s making sure we go out there and put our best foot forward and play winning football. So that’s about right now, this is adversity.”

Adversity is one of the few consistencies about the Trojans this season.

USC sent shock waves through the sports world when it hired Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley as its football coach. Here’s everything you need to know about Riley.


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