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Column: Lincoln Riley starts USC rebuilding with statement on local recruits

New USC football coach Lincoln Riley has been showing up on campus, including at a recent Trojans basketball game.
New USC football coach Lincoln Riley has been making the rounds on campus.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He wasn’t the same country bumpkin who was introduced as USC’s new head coach three weeks earlier.

By the time Lincoln Riley addressed reporters again Friday at Heritage Hall, the wide-eyed tourist had morphed into a calm sage.

Clay Helton never looked this comfortable in his six-plus seasons as the Trojans’ leader.

Riley wasn’t loud. He wasn’t animated.

He didn’t have to be.

He was a coach with a clear idea of where he was headed and what he had to do to get there.

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USC snagged California’s top recruit for the second straight year; Domani Jackson says he chose the Trojans when they retained coach Donte Williams.

“We know what a championship program looks like,” Riley said.

The measured delivery of his words projected a confidence that he could do here what he did at Oklahoma, if not more.

“We’ll get the pieces,” he said matter-of-factly.

Riley’s plan already was starting to take shape, as the Trojans signed the consensus No. 1 player in the state, Santa Ana Mater Dei cornerback Domani Jackson.

“We’re going to sign players from all over, but the majority of players we are going to sign are certainly going to be from this part of the country,” Riley said.

Reflecting on his experiences recruiting in Southern California in his previous job as Oklahoma’s coach, Riley explained why he believed USC is positioned to dominate the local recruiting landscape.

“I always remember a sense not just in this state but this part of the country that when ‘SC was good, they were going to be tough to beat,” Riley said. “And when ‘SC wasn’t good, you maybe had a chance to sign kids that deep down really wanted to go to ‘SC and maybe the program just wasn’t where it needed to be or where they felt like it was good enough to go.

Mater Dei Monarchs cornerback Domani Jackson (3) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Duncanville Panthers.
Domani Jackson of Mater Dei (3) is headed to USC.
(Jerome Miron / Jerome Miron)

“I still feel that deep down the majority of players around here, they want to play at USC.”

To Riley’s point: In the wake of his hiring, USC gained oral commitments from two of the region’s best players in the 2023 class in quarterback Malachi Nelson and receiver Makai Lemon of Los Alamitos.

Counting Jackson, the Trojans landed only seven players in the early signing period, but Riley said that was by design.

“There’s been a lot of interest in people wanting to come here,” Riley said. “It’s tempting to want to come up here today and have 20 names on this list. But we know in the end that’s not how you build a championship roster. It’s about getting the right names. The numbers will come.

“We did not want to go off on a lot of wild chases on guys that were unlikely to come here in such a short time period. Most importantly, we didn’t want to go off hunting guys just trying to add guys on signing day that we didn’t know and that did not know us. You just take that risk of, ‘Am I bringing the wrong piece in the room?’ Right now, obviously, you’ve got to go get the right pieces, but you’ve got to avoid bringing in the wrong pieces too.”

New Trojans coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged that a seven-player class so far is smaller than usual but added, ‘We’ll get the right pieces, trust me.’

No panic moves here.

Riley didn’t sugarcoat the abilities of the players he inherited from Helton, saying a significant number of them would be replaced.

“We may overhaul 35, if not even more, spots on this roster,” he said. “That’s a huge overhaul when you figure a travel college roster is 70.”

As he said, the numbers will come.

They will come via the transfer portal. They will come via the late signing period.

As he explained how he would rebuild a four-win team, Riley was relaxed enough to make a pitch to the potential recruits watching a live stream of news conference.

“What a phenomenal resource that we have right at our fingertips here with the power of this university and the power of this city,” he said. “The possibilities for NIL for all of our student-athletes here are endless.”

USC’s 2022 football schedule sets up nicely for new coach Lincoln Riley to make a statement in his introduction to the Pac-12.

What he didn’t say was that he also now had the benefit of competing in a conference in transition. The Pac-12’s two other traditional powers, Oregon and Washington, also hired new coaches in the last month.

In a couple of years, the Trojans will have a clear path to the College Football Playoff.

“I like what we have,” Riley said. “I think it’s a good starting point. Now, it is a starting point. We’ve got a lot to build, but I’m confident we’ll do that.”

And why shouldn’t he be?

He built a winner at Oklahoma. He walked into an ideal situation at USC. Nothing has gone wrong — yet.


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