USC’s Jalen Hurts? Why Lincoln Riley is comparing Shane Lee to an old favorite
When Jalen Hurts left Alabama for Oklahoma ahead of the 2019 season, Lincoln Riley saw firsthand how a single transfer could reshape a team’s culture. In Hurts’ case, the impact was immediate. The new quarterback’s presence helped lift a locker room that lost Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, sending the Sooners soaring to the College Football Playoff for a third season in a row.
Three years later, another Alabama transfer is earning similar plaudits from Riley and his staff at USC.
Shane Lee didn’t set out to be a locker-room leader. He just wanted to play, to be a part of something. After earning freshman All-American honors as the Tide’s starting middle linebacker, a series of obstacles largely outside of his control kept Lee from regaining the role. A sports hernia limited him to five games as a sophomore during Alabama’s 2020 national title run. A stacked depth chart limited him after that, as he registered only 10 combined tackles over his last two seasons.
Colorado wide receiver Brenden Rice wasn’t sure he made the right decision when he entered the transfer portal; then USC coach Lincoln Riley called.
“Initially it was really frustrating, but I learned a lot,” Lee said this week. “I grew a lot. It’s adversity — like, everybody goes through it, and you’ve just got to look at it a certain way and be able to learn from it and grow from it and be better because of it.”
USC coaches could sense that growth early in conversations with Lee. The linebacker, in turn, was immediately sold on the culture Riley and his staff were building.
“It was all about winning,” Lee said. “It just seemed like family. It seemed real genuine, it seemed, really, like me. So it seemed like a good fit.”
The effusive praise this spring suggests USC agrees.
Riley compared him to Hurts, adding on the “Trojans Live” radio show this week that Lee had been “instrumental within our program” since his arrival.
“He adds a lot to the room,” inside linebackers coach Brian Odom said Thursday, heaping more praise onto Lee. “His experiences, the way he talks, the way he carries himself, the way he works, his demeanor, he’s all about ball. Everybody enjoys being around him, knows he’s a serious guy. He’s built quite a reputation to start.”
How that might translate on the field is still to be determined, but Lee’s freshman season suggests the Trojans new barrel-chested linebacker could be the leader USC has long needed in the middle of its defense. At Alabama, Lee stepped in for injured All-SEC linebacker Dylan Moses as a freshman and deftly responded with 83 tackles, 4.5 sacks and an interception.
Lee wouldn’t divulge much about what happened to his role there, other than to acknowledge that injuries played a part in his tumble down the depth chart. The interest from other teams came pouring in when he entered the transfer portal in mid-January. Odom reached out almost immediately, and 10 days later, Lee was headed to USC.
He’d never been to Los Angeles, but in speaking with Riley, USC felt like a perfect fit.
Nothing about Lee’s experience so far has changed his mind.
“We come out here in workouts and die and I look over and I see downtown, I see the mountains and I see the palm trees and it’s a lot different than where I come from,” said Lee, who grew up in Maryland. “So it’s really cool to be out here. It’s a lot different, but it’s really cool. I’m ready to embrace it all.”
With USC opening spring football practice, here are 10 players poised to make an impact under first-year coach Lincoln Riley.
Lee steps into the middle of an otherwise dire situation at linebacker, one that Odom openly admitted this week needs a lot of work.
“Nowhere near where we need to be,” Odom said of USC’s linebackers. “We’ve got to get so much better here over the next few months.”
Senior linebacker Ralen Goforth returns with 105 career tackles but was a starter in the middle of USC’s struggling defense last season.
Sophomore Raesjon Davis, a former top-50 prospect who was seen as a major recruiting coup in USC’s 2021 class, offers another intriguing option alongside Lee. Yet Davis couldn’t get on the field for USC as a freshman, failing to record a single tackle.
It’s unclear where Davis stands in USC’s plans on defense. But when asked for his assessment, Odom was honest.
“He’s got some maturing to do in terms of knowing what it takes to be a high-level Division 1 athlete,” Odom said. “It’s my job to get him there. Excited about doing it. Excited about his future here for sure.”
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