Lincoln Riley’s first USC coaching staff: Who’s on it and what are their duties?
When Donte Williams was first elevated to interim coach, tasked with leading the Trojans through what turned out to be a lost season, the hope at USC was that its ace recruiter might be kept on by whomever was hired as the next coach.
Even as USC unraveled down the stretch, losing seven of its final 10 games under Williams’ care, the Trojans new coach came to agree. Williams is the only assistant from USC’s previous staff to be retained by Lincoln Riley, giving the new coach an L.A. native and elite recruiter to fill out a staff otherwise lacking in Southern California ties.
Lincoln Riley’s path to USC was forged in Muleshoe, Texas, where the locals say Riley could’ve been anything he wanted — but puzzle ‘Why L.A.?’
After two years as USC’s cornerbacks coach — the last of which he also spent as associate head coach — Williams will continue to coach defensive backs on Riley’s staff. But it was his recruiting prowess that made Williams an especially valuable asset for the new coach to retain.
One of the nation’s top-ranked recruiters, Williams played a major role in securing each of the past two top prospects in the state of California. He was the lead recruiter on Corona Centennial defensive end Korey Foreman, whose signing marked a major turning point for USC on the recruiting trail. And this year, it was Williams who played an integral role in securing top Mater Dei cornerback Domani Jackson in the Trojans’ 2022 class.
In an interview with 247Sports.com, Jackson said that Riley’s choice to retain Williams was a deciding factor in his signing with USC.
“Honestly, if Donte wasn’t coming back, I would be going to ‘Bama,” Jackson said. “That’s my guy. He’s been recruiting me since eighth grade and I believe in him.”
Outside of Williams, there won’t be any familiar faces on USC’s sideline. There are no other connections to past Trojan staffs or even USC alums. Instead the new staff represents a mostly clean break from past eras of USC football.
“I truly believe we have put together an elite group of coaches that will help build this football program back to national prominence,” Riley said in a statement. “They have each been a part of winning programs and have a championship mindset. This staff understands that championship teams have a foundation of culture, and they know what that looks like and how to implement it. They recognize the tradition and expectations of this program and are eager to get to work.”
Here’s a look at the new assistants who will make up Riley’s first Trojans staff:
Josh Henson, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach
After years of issues up front, USC turns to its fourth offensive line coach in less than four years. Henson arrives after turning Texas A&M’s offensive front into one of the nation’s finest during the past two years.
The Aggies allowed just seven sacks during 10 games in 2020, becoming the first team in a decade to lead the SEC in sacks allowed, tackles for loss allowed and yards per carry. Last season, Texas A&M was again sturdy up front, allowing 19 sacks in 12 games, which ranked 23rd-fewest in college football.
Henson has just once before been an offensive coordinator, leading Missouri’s offense from 2013-15, after serving as offensive line coach during the four seasons prior. He left the Tigers after the 2015 season and joined his alma mater, Oklahoma State, for a second stint as offensive line coach.
Riley will still call plays and shape the offense in his image, but Henson will no doubt be one of the most crucial members of USC’s new staff. He’s also highly respected on the recruiting trail, ranking among the top 25 recruiters in the country according to 247Sports.
Kiel McDonald, running backs coach
After losing its first choice — Tashard Choice — to Texas, USC quickly found another respected running backs coach to poach from its own conference.
Under McDonald’s tutelage, Utah’s rushing attack has been the class of the Pac-12 in two of the past three seasons, leading the conference in both rushing yards and touchdowns. This year, as Utah won the Pac-12, its run game led the way, ranking 13th nationally with an average of 216.8 yards per game.
McDonald played a key role in developing Zack Moss into Utah’s all-time leading rusher. This season, he helped Tavion Thomas become the Pac-12’s touchdown leader (21).
Unlike many of the other assistants on Riley’s new staff, McDonald has no previous known ties to the coach or his Air Raid mentor, Mike Leach.
Before Utah, McDonald spent five seasons as the running backs coach at Eastern Washington. He spent the 2011 season as a graduate assistant at Arizona State.
Dennis Simmons, wide receivers coach
Simmons has deep connections with Riley that go back to their days under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, where they both coached receivers. It was Riley’s first full-time assistant job. They worked together again at East Carolina from 2010-11 when Riley was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and Simmons coached receivers.
Before joining Oklahoma’s staff in 2015, Simmons coached receivers under Leach at Washington State for three years. He continued in the position with the Sooners, focusing on outside receivers, and added the titles of associate head coach (2019) and assistant head coach/passing game coordinator (2021).
At USC, Simmons will retain the title of assistant head coach, as well as passing game coordinator.
Simmons has coached two Biletnikoff Award winners — Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree and Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook — and mentored current NFL receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb.
Dave Nichol, inside receivers coach
Another Leach disciple, Nichol and Riley coached together as student assistants in the early days of the Air Raid at Texas Tech. They coached again together at East Carolina, where they both served as full-time assistants. And now, Nichol arrives in L.A. after two more stints under Leach, the latest being a two-year run at Mississippi State.
Nichol, who will also be USC’s associate head coach for offense, served as offensive coordinator for a year at East Carolina after Riley left to take the same position at Oklahoma. He spent four seasons after that with Leach at Washington State, where he coached receivers. When Leach left for Mississippi State, Nichol followed.
Now, Nichol joins forces again with Riley and Simmons, another member of Leach’s old staff, in helping develop USC’s receivers. He’ll also add the title of associate head coach for offense.
Zach Hanson, tight ends coach
Hanson, who served as a graduate assistant on Riley’s Oklahoma staff in 2019, comes to USC after two years of coaching Tulsa’s offensive line. He was last a tight ends coach in 2018, when he coached the position on Bill Snyder’s final staff at Kansas State.
A former offensive tackle at Kansas State, Hanson started his career as a graduate assistant for the Wildcats, before joining North Carolina as an assistant special teams coach.
Hanson’s wife, Annie, also joined USC’s staff in a recruiting role. She was previously Oklahoma’s assistant athletic director for recruiting strategy and administrative management before leaving for USC.
Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator/safeties coach
Grinch has worked in Norman for the last two seasons as the defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
The 41-year-old assistant has Pac-12 experience from Washington State, where he got his first coordinator job in 2015 under Mike Leach. His motto was “Speed D,” a style characterized by forcing turnovers, playing aggressively and, as the name suggests, emphasizing speed. With Grinch, the Cougars went from three wins in 2014 to nine in 2015 as the defense improved from 99th nationally in yards allowed to 16th. The Cougars went to three consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2001-03.
After a one-year stint at Ohio State, where he helped the Buckeyes to a Rose Bowl win in 2018, Grinch joined Riley in Norman, where Oklahoma led the Big 12 in yards given up per game in conference play in 2019. Last year, the Sooners ranked third nationally in interceptions.
Grinch has his work cut out for him with USC’s defense. The Trojans, under second-year coordinator Todd Orlando, allowed program worsts in points (32.5) and yards (422.1) per game.
Shaun Nua, defensive line coach
Michigan’s unexpected run to the College Football Playoff semifinals this season was fueled, in part, by its dominant defensive line, a group led by future top-10 NFL draft picks Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo.
Nua, a former BYU defensive lineman, was the Wolverine assistant behind that group’s ascent, and his arrival at USC softens the blow of losing Jamar Cain, the former Sooners assistant and respected recruiter who spurned USC for LSU before the ink dried on the deal.
Nua, who joined Michigan’s staff in 2019 after one season at Arizona State, was the only Michigan defensive assistant retained by Jim Harbaugh after the team’s disastrous 2020 campaign. His work with Hutchinson and Ojabo, who came out of nowhere to earn 11 sacks this season, certainly vindicated that decision.
Nua played four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining BYU’s staff as an intern, then grad assistant. He left to be the defensive line coach at Navy, where he spent six seasons.
Brian Odom, linebackers coach
Odom, an Oklahoma native and member of the 2000 national title team, was one of several Oklahoma assistants to leave the Sooners last month for USC. But before following Riley, he stayed behind to lead Oklahoma’s defense to a bowl win as its interim coordinator.
Odom’s path to that moment was an unusual one, beginning with a 10-year stint in football strength and performance roles at Arizona and Houston. He joined Grinch as a defensive quality control assistant at Washington State in 2015 before joining Missouri’s staff as a linebackers coach in 2017. He left for Oklahoma, his alma mater, in 2019, and reunited with Grinch, who had just been named defensive coordinator.
In his first season as linebackers coach, Oklahoma made a leap from 114th in total defense (453.8 ypg) to 38th in 2019 (356.4 ypg). He worked with first-team All-American linebacker and Chargers first-round pick Kenneth Murray. At USC, he’ll have his work cut out for him in rebuilding the linebacker room.
Odom will also add the title of associate head coach for defense.
Roy Manning, outside linebackers/nickel backs coach
Manning has spent five of the past six seasons working within Grinch’s defensive scheme, following the coordinator from Washington State to Oklahoma and now to USC. In between, Manning spent the 2018 season as the outside linebackers coach at UCLA.
While the Trojans chose to retain their previous cornerbacks coach, Manning will shift back to coaching outside linebackers. Manning, a former Michigan linebacker, has had an assortment of assistant responsibilities over his 10-year career, starting as a running backs coach at Cincinnati in 2012 before switching over to defense while coaching at his alma mater in 2013.
In 2020, Oklahoma’s secondary ranked third in the nation in interceptions and 16th in completion percentage allowed. That group took a precipitous step back in 2021, as Oklahoma ranked 111th in passing yards allowed and 113th in completion percentage allowed.
Manning will also work with USC’s nickel corners, in addition to linebackers.
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