Breaking down the USC roster Lincoln Riley inherits
“But change is good,” senior defensive end Nick Figueroa said last week.
For a program that just finished with its worst record in 30 years, that promise might portend a full-scale rebuild this offseason. A completely new staff is already being built. Significant roster turnover is expected in the coming weeks. And momentum is now building for a major statement on signing day next Wednesday.
But while wholesale changes loom, here’s a preliminary look at where USC might stand once the dust finally settles:
It wasn’t long ago that Kedon Slovis was seen as one of the Pac-12’s top passers, a potential Heisman candidate and a surefire first-round NFL draft selection. But since September, when freshman Jaxson Dart stepped in for an injured Slovis and exploded with an extraordinary debut at Washington State, it seemed only a matter of time before the baton was passed to USC’s electric freshman.
A late-season injury only sped up that process, as Dart took the reins and Slovis watched the final three games from the sideline. The expectation is that Slovis will leave USC, but whether that means Slovis enters the NFL draft or transfers to another school is still uncertain.
Dart isn’t going anywhere, and neither is four-star backup Miller Moss. Both will make their impassioned pleas in the coming months to open the Riley era as USC’s quarterback of the future, with Dart the overwhelming favorite to fill that role. But they may not be the only ones vying for the title.
It’s not yet clear where Oklahoma freshman quarterback Caleb Williams will land next football season. The crown jewel of the Sooners’ 2021 class, Williams took over Oklahoma’s offense midway through last season and flashed like one of the most talented quarterbacks in college football as a freshman. If he decides to follow Riley to USC, he would almost certainly be the starter, completely upending the Trojans’ quarterback room.
USC had one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks before Keaontay Ingram arrived from Texas as a transfer last spring. Ingram managed to reinvigorate a dismal USC run game, but as he weighs his future, the question now is whether he showed enough to convince scouts he deserves to be drafted.
Ingram said Saturday he’ll discuss that decision with Riley, but if he decides to return for one more season, it’s likely he’ll return as USC’s lead back. If he opts instead for the NFL, that role could fall on Darwin Barlow, who impressed coaches in his first season at USC but dealt with injuries.
Senior Vavae Malepeai has made it clear he won’t return, but in his place, USC welcomes one of the nation’s most exciting prospects in Mater Dei all-purpose running back Raleek Brown, who could offer a spark right away next season.
USC football closed out its unremarkable season with a 24-14 loss to California in the final game before Lincoln Riley takes control as coach.
Wide receivers/tight ends
Riley would have loved to inherit Drake London, but the injured wideout is on his way to the NFL draft, where he’ll be a first-round pick. With London gone, there’s no obvious receiver to take over top billing in a new offense that asks a lot of its receivers.
Speedy sophomore Gary Bryant Jr. made a statement down the stretch of this season with four touchdowns during his final four games. Tahj Washington is a shifty playmaker who could excel in an offense more tailored to his skill set. And Kyle Ford is a huge target who is now healthy and could make a major leap with a new offense.
Until last season, Riley didn’t use tight ends much at Oklahoma. But with a cadre of talented hybrid tight ends already on the roster at USC, it’s safe to expect Riley will find a way to integrate Michael Trigg, Malcolm Epps and Lake McRee, all three of whom had their moments this past season.
No position group is in more serious flux. While USC’s offensive line — and especially its interior — exceeded expectations in 2021, there’s no guarantee any of its starting five return. Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon and Liam Jimmons are all eligible for the NFL draft and may consider it, but don’t be surprised if all three opt to come back. Vorhees especially showed promise filling in at left tackle and was USC’s highest-graded linemen according to Pro Football Focus.
Young tackles Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim will have to prove themselves to a new staff after an inconsistent freshmen season, but both should take steps forward with some extra experience under their belt. They better — or else USC could once again find itself in dire straits along its offensive line.
The line was supposed to be the strength of USC’s defense this past season. It didn’t exactly work out that way, but the cupboard is by no means bare.
Tuli Tuipulotu will return as perhaps the most talented player on the Trojans’ defense, while Figueroa has already announced he’ll use his extra year of eligibility for a sixth season. Freshman Korey Foreman had a disappointing debut season, but with a year of experience and a new staff in place, the hope is that his sensational talent will finally shine through.
Once Baylor beat Oklahoma State on Saturday, there was no doubt the playoff teams would be Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and Cincinnati.
The interior is far more uncertain. Jake Lichtenstein already announced he’s entering the transfer portal, leaving USC with a largely unproven group led by Jamar Sekona and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, both of whom were inconsistent in 2021. Expect reinforcements to join them in the middle.
Drake Jackson’s “money year” may not have been as lucrative as he hoped, but there’s no reason to think he’ll pass on entering the draft as planned. His absence leaves huge shoes to fill in USC’s pass rush, with no obvious choices to fill them. Juliano Falaniko and Hunter Echols, who also worked as edge rushers, are redshirt seniors who entered the transfer portal Monday.
At inside linebacker, the situation is even more dire. Kana’i Mauga has been USC’s top inside linebacker for the past two years, but has a decision to make about the NFL. His stock could probably benefit from an extra year, but it’s unclear how he might fit in Alex Grinch’s new defensive scheme.
Beyond Mauga, Riley will have to hope for a major leap from Raesjon Davis, who was the second-highest-rated recruit in USC’s last recruiting class, but barely played as a freshman.
The state of USC’s secondary hinges on the impending draft decisions of starting cornerbacks Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart, both of whom seem likely to move on, even if their stocks didn’t improve much over the Trojans’ lost season.
If both declare, USC will have to rely on unproven prospects — and perhaps a few still-unsigned recruits — to make an immediate impact next season. Five-star cornerback and former commit Domani Jackson is the biggest domino still to fall, with a decision between Alabama and USC expected in the coming days.
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Even without Jackson, USC is hardly bereft of young talent in its secondary. Freshman safety Calen Bullock was one of the standouts on the Trojans defense in 2021, while young cornerbacks Jaylin Smith, Prophet Brown and Joshua Jackson flashed at times through the season. A new cornerbacks coach could completely reorder that group by the spring.
Parker Lewis had a rough finish to his sophomore season, hitting just eight of his final 13 field-goal attempts, but all signs point toward him returning as USC’s kicker. Punter and captain Ben Griffiths has indicated he hopes to return, too, but as of right now, he’ll have another Aussie punter in incoming freshman Atticus Bertrams to contend with for playing time.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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