Caleb Williams among top 10 USC players to watch during spring football

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams scrambles with the ball against Oklahoma State.
Caleb Williams scrambles with the ball during a game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in November. The highly touted transfer will be the center of attention during USC’s spring practices.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)
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Four months ago, as trumpets blared and Song Girls swayed and USC basked in the afterglow of its new coach’s stunning arrival, Lincoln Riley was asked amid the pomp and circumstance of his celebratory news conference how long it might actually take to set USC on a return path to prominence.

The coach answered confidently: “I think it can happen quickly. I do,” he said.

Riley has done everything in his power since to live up to that proclamation. He brought the most coveted transfer in college football to USC. He turned over pretty much all of USC’s staff, overhauled nearly half of its roster and completely upended its future on the recruiting trail.


The first glimpse of those changes comes Tuesday, when the Trojans will hold their first official practice of the Riley era.

Here are 10 players we’ll be watching closely during a crucial spring session for USC:


Caleb Williams, quarterback

Caleb Williams passes the ball during a game between Oklahoma and Kansas in October.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

There’s no question who will command the spring’s brightest spotlight. All eyes will be on USC’s new signal caller — and for good reason. Caleb Williams has the dual threat talent to completely transform the Trojans offense, and early reports out of USC are that he has already effortlessly stepped into a leadership role.

Outside of a brief observation window at the start, practices this spring will be closed to the media. So we won’t get to watch much of Williams at the helm of USC’s offense until the spring game, which will be broadcast on ESPN.

But what we’ve already seen from Williams in one season at Oklahoma suggests superstardom could be on the horizon for the sophomore. He already understands Riley’s offense. As a freshman, it seemed to suit him quite nicely, as he passed for 1,912 yards, rushed for 442 more and totaled 27 touchdowns during just seven starts.


It’s been years — maybe even decades — since a spring debut at USC has been this hotly anticipated. How Williams fits in over the next five weeks should set the tone for the season to come.


Mario Williams, receiver

Oklahoma wide receiver Mario Williams runs with the ball after losing his helmet against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

When Drake London went down last season, his glaring absence underscored the dire state of USC’s receiving corps. Riley set about remaking the position, adding three transfers and a top-100 prospect at the position.

The star of that incoming group is Mario Williams, a former five-star receiver who was one of Caleb Williams’ top targets as a freshman last season at Oklahoma. Expect that chemistry to carry over and for Mario Williams to solidify his spot as one of USC’s starting outside receivers.

That race is wide open at the start of spring. But his pedigree and familiarity in Riley’s offense should give Williams a leg up.


Travis Dye, running back

Oregon running back Travis Dye celebrates a touchdown against Oregon State on Nov. 27.
(Andy Nelson / Associated Press)

After a prolific run at Oregon, Travis Dye steps into USC’s backfield with a resume befitting an all-conference back. It’s a convenient transition for the Trojans, who lost two backs to the NFL (Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai) and another (Brandon Campbell) to the transfer portal.

Dye led the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards last season, and that versatility should only be on more prominent display with Riley calling plays. How prominent depends on how much Riley plans to rotate his backs.

Stanford transfer Austin Jones and returning back Darwin Barlow are both expected to compete for carries this spring, while five-star freshman Raleek Brown will join in the summer and likely step into a similar all-purpose role. But Dye has proven already that he’s one of the Pac-12’s best backs — that shouldn’t change with a shift in scenery.


Brenden Rice, receiver

Colorado' Brenden Rice against California during of an NCAA college football game.
Colorado’s Brenden Rice carries the ball against California on Oct. 23.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)


Another transfer added to USC’s receiving corps, Brenden Rice comes from Colorado with the size and skillset to potentially be the Trojans’ top passing target. His lineage certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

After two years of subpar quarterback play in Boulder, he’ll now have one of the top passers in college football looking his way in L.A. That alone could coax a breakout from Rice, whose father is 49ers Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.

Expect him to open spring as one of USC’s top receivers on the outside, likely opposite of Williams. Fellow transfer Terrell Bynum, who did most of his damage at Washington in the slot, is another to watch in the new rotation.


Korey Foreman, defensive end

Corona Centennial defensive end Korey Foreman warms up before a game against Mater Dei in 2019.
(Luis Sinco)

The first returner on this list, Korey Foreman has plenty of questions to answer this spring after a mostly uninspiring freshman season. But the former top overall prospect’s talent has never been in doubt.


Could Shaun Nua be the coach to unlock him? The new defensive line coach did an outstanding job last season with Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. If he can work that magic on Foreman and the rest of the defensive line, USC could have a formidable group up front.

We didn’t see much of that from Foreman as a freshman. We should get an idea soon enough how much more USC’s new staff expects from him as a sophomore.


Shane Lee, linebacker

Alabama linebacker Shane Lee returns an interception against Mississippi State in 2019.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

After years of lacking at linebacker, USC may have finally found the physical force it desperately needed in the middle. At least, that’s the hope with Shane Lee, a freshman All-American in 2019 who left Alabama after a series of nagging injuries.

The Trojans are in the middle of a tear down at linebacker, leaving pretty much every spot in that room up for grabs. If he can stay healthy, one of those spots will presumably be filled by Lee.


But at 250 pounds, he’s largely known as a run stopper. USC still needs to find capable linebackers to rush the passer and reliably drop into coverage. Redshirt freshman Raesjon Davis and Auburn transfer Romello Height are two others to monitor in that search, as is Solomon Tuliaupupu, a former top recruit who’s switching from inside backer to edge rusher after years of dealing with injuries.


Bobby Haskins, offensive tackle

Virginia offensive tackle Bobby Haskins (70) blocks during a game against William & Mary in 2019.
(Andrew Shurtleff / Associated Press)

Concerns about USC’s offensive line are a time-honored tradition, but the addition of Bobby Haskins as a possible option at left tackle puts the Trojans in a better place than they were at this point last season.

Haskins started 20 games at Virginia before leaving for USC as a grad transfer, and that experience makes him among the most intriguing options to step in as one of the Trojans offensive tackles. He was seen in a walking boot at one point in the offseason, so his status remains uncertain for spring. But if he’s available, expect him to be among the first to step in at tackle.


Domani Jackson, cornerback

Mater Dei cornerback Domani Jackson scores on an interception return against Duncanville (Texas) in August.
(Jerome Miron / For The Times)


We don’t know if the Trojans’ top 2022 recruit will be ready to go for spring, and whether he plays or not, he’ll be unavailable to speak to reporters until at least the fall since he’s a freshman. But in a wide-open USC secondary, Domani Jackson’s role will be one of the most fascinating to watch in the coming months.

It’s been six months since a knee injury ended his senior season at Santa Ana Mater Dei. But if he’s healthy, Jackson could carve out a role in a USC secondary that’s being completely revamped.

Both starting corners from last season are off to the NFL, and while transfers Mekhi Blackmon and Latrell McCutchin could have the inside track on those spots, there’s a reason Jackson was the top prospect in California last season.


Max Williams, defensive back

USC safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao (21) and Max Williams (4) celebrate after an incomplete pass against Arizona State.
USC safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao (21) and Max Williams (4) celebrate after an incomplete pass against Arizona State in November 2020.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Max Williams looked well on his way to a regular role last spring when he tore a ligament in his knee, ending his season before it started. After months and months of relentless rehab, Williams is finally ready to return — just in time for USC to turn over its entire secondary.


It’s impossible to know how the secondary situation will shake out. But if Williams is completely back, he seems like a natural fit as USC’s new nickel back or as a hybrid safety.

What a story that would be after a difficult season spent waiting in the wings.


Calen Bullock, safety

USC safety Calen Bullock follows a play against San Jose State in September.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

Calen Bullock was the bright spot in an otherwise dark season for USC’s defense. He was stronger in coverage than expected as a freshman, solidifying an otherwise uncertain secondary.

Where he stands with USC’s new staff remains to be seen, but he will likely step into a similar role under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who doubles as the Trojans safeties coach. With a leap forward, he could be one of the Pac-12’s top players at the position.

USC doesn’t have any depth to spare at safety, especially after Chris Thompson Jr. moved to weakside linebacker. Freshman Zion Branch may see some serious chances to play early this fall, if no one emerges alongside Bullock.