Column: Lincoln Riley brings high energy as USC opens spring football

First year USC football coach Lincoln Riley watches the offense during spring practice.
First year USC football coach Lincoln Riley watches the offense during spring practice at USC on Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Lincoln Riley was everywhere.

He ran alongside tight end Ethan Rae as if he was a linebacker covering him.

He ran over to receiver Mario Williams, pointed to the sideline and offered him some words of advice.

He broke up a pass intended for Ty Shamblin and slapped the receiver’s helmet.

In his first practice as USC’s head coach, Riley projected an abundance of youthful coaching energy on Tuesday, running and clapping and injecting vitality back into the Los Angeles’ most popular football team.


This wasn’t a Clay Helton practice.

This was closer to a Sean McVay training session.

Wearing a white visor and sunglasses, Riley was dressed in a gray shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black shorts.

He looked 38 years young.

And when the practice was over, Riley was ready for Round 2.

“I’m not tired, man,” Riley said. “I’ve been waiting 100 days for this, man. This is what we do. The way the players are responding, the way the staff is coming together, it energizes me. It excites me. I was so ready for this day, to be here. I can’t even describe it. It was a blast. I wish we could go back and run it back right now.”

Helton is only 11 years older, but he might as well be 40 years Riley’s senior.

“The energy level is really high,” running back Austin Jones said. “It’s a different type of atmosphere.”

With USC opening spring football practice, here are 10 players poised to make an impact under first-year coach Lincoln Riley.

March 22, 2022

Jones, who started for Stanford last year, is one of three transfer running backs on the team.

Travis Dye, another senior transfer, ranks fifth all-time at Oregon in career rushing yards. Darwin Barlow moved from Texas Christian.

The Trojans have 13 transfers on their roster, including quarterback Caleb Williams, who followed Riley from Oklahoma. Other transfers could join the program after spring practice.


Riley’s vibrancy played a critical role in the makeover of a team that finished 4-8 last year under Helton and interim replacement Donte Williams, who remains with the Trojans as a defensive backs coach.

Receiver Brenden Rice said he wasn’t certain he would leave Colorado when he entered the transfer portal on New Year’s Day.

Within a half-hour — “maybe 15 minutes,” Rice said — Riley called him.

“I’m like, ‘Wow, OK,’” Rice said.

USC coach Lincoln Riley looks on as quarterback Caleb Williams makes a pass.
USC coach Lincoln Riley looks on as quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during spring practice at USC on Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When the conversation ended, Rice called his mother. Next, he texted his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.

“I’m going to Cali,” the message to his father read.

“As soon as I heard Lincoln call,” Rice said, “you know you have to go.”

With 19 eligible players departing via the transfer portal, USC has what Riley described as “the most unique roster in the history of this school and one of the most unique rosters in the history of this sport.”

Riley’s personality will be just as important in transforming the program’s culture as it was in constructing the roster.


“The main goal right now is learning how to practice, learning how to do things in a championship manner, learning how to come together as a team,” Riley said.

Senior center Brett Neilon, a returning player, said Riley has emphasized strength and conditioning.

“With Coach Riley,” Neilon said, “be in the best shape possible and transform our bodies.”

USC coach Lincoln Riley interacts with wide receiver Kyron Ware-Hudson.
USC coach Lincoln Riley interacts with wide receiver Kyron Ware-Hudson during spring practice at USC on Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The reason: Riley intends to bolster a running attack that declined over Helton’s seven-year tenure. He wants to establish an offensive identity based on physicality.

“I believe you have to run the football to win championships, to be a championship football team,” Riley said. “It’s something we’ve been pretty decent at in our past. I think it’s something this school, when you look back at its championship seasons, a strong running game has been a part of that. You’re not going to win championships without stopping the run defensively. Our guys have heard that once or twice in the last 100 days.”

Riley also wants his players to dream.

Asked if the Trojans would be ready to compete for a Pac-12 title in his first season, Riley replied, “For us, it’s about just getting as good as we can right now. We understand that’s a journey. But I will say this: I’m not going to take any goal off the table.”


Drake London, Keaontay Ingram and other USC football standouts spoke with The Times ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

March 2, 2022

Tempering expectations, Riley continued, is “not why we came here. We expect to compete for and win championships every single year that we’re here. I’ll save you that question for the next 10 to 15 years. That’s going to be the same answer. That’s who we are as a staff, that’s what we believe in, and, frankly, that’s what this program should be about. This is USC. The expectation here should be to win championships every single year.”

Riley acknowledged there is plenty of distance between where the Trojans are now and where they want to be.

Tuesday was the only first step, but Riley’s enthusiasm has given them the equivalent of a running start.