Insights from USC coach Lincoln Riley’s first week leading spring football

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

The first official practices of the Lincoln Riley era at USC are in the rearview mirror. So what have we learned about USC’s new regime through one week of spring football practice?


Williams’ impact

Caleb Williams has seamlessly stepped into a leadership role. He might’ve taken a wrong turn into his first USC practice, but the Trojans’ new QB1 has looked completely at ease at the helm of his new offense. Teammates are already raving. His gravitational pull within the program is powerful.

“He’s a baller,” running back Austin Jones said. “He’s a leader. Most definitely, he’s an alpha.”

Those qualifications should come as no surprise after Williams smoothly took the reins from Spencer Rattler in the middle of the season as a freshman at Oklahoma. He’ll have the benefit of an entire spring and summer to establish himself at USC.

“He’s one of those guys who can walk into a room with people he doesn’t know and he’s kind of a chameleon, he can fit in in any place,” Riley said.


USC quarterback Caleb Williams tosses a pass during spring practice
USC quarterback Caleb Williams tosses a pass during spring practice Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)


Higher expectations

It’s far too early to say one way or another if Riley has changed the culture of USC football. That’s going to take a while. But judging by a week of comments from coaches and players about where the program stands at the start of spring, it’s clear the staff is pushing players to raise their own expectations.

Assistants were frank this week about how far their players have to go. Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom said his group was “nowhere near where it needs to be.” Others talked about players needing to adjust to a new mentality. Even with Williams, Riley said he’d identified “a lot of areas where he can improve as a player” and that the quarterback was “a long way from being the best player he can be.”

Raising expectations is only a first step. But it’s an important one.


Still recruiting

Riley has added 13 transfers already, but USC is nowhere near done with the portal. With 20 players on their way out and those 13 coming aboard, Riley referred to his new team this week “as one of the most unique rosters in the history of this sport.”

If Riley continues raiding the portal as planned, it should be even more extraordinary by the fall.


USC quarterback transfer Caleb Williams began spring football showing he’s ready to be the leader for the Trojans’ revamped offense.

The coach was clear this week that he’s expecting to add 10 or more additional transfers after the spring, while several others are likely to leave amid the fallout. It’s unclear where Riley plans to add, but quarterback and receiver are two positions he could hone in on.

USC has just two healthy scholarship quarterbacks this spring — “It’s not ideal,” Riley said — but could potentially get Mo Hasan back from a knee injury by fall. At receiver, assistant coach Dennis Simmons said USC “definitely needs to add talent.”

That’s probably also true on the offensive and defensive lines — and at linebacker, too. USC isn’t really in a position to turn down talent at this point.


Running back competition

Travis Dye has a prolific pedigree. But USC may not have a clear lead running back until fall. Spring reps at running back don’t mean much. Until it’s full contact, evaluating the backfield is impossible.

Oregon running back Travis Dye carries the ball during the 2021 season
Oregon running back Travis Dye carries the ball during the 2021 season. He has transferred to USC, but he faces competition for carries.
(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

What we do know is that USC has more all-purpose talent now than it did at this point last season. That starts with Dye, who left Oregon for USC after Riley pitched him on “exposing everything I can do,” said Dye, who’s one of five Oregon backs to reach 3,000 rushing yards.

Both he and Austin Jones have shown early they are adept at catching passes out of the backfield; combined, they bring 150 career receptions to USC. That versatility should only be more of a weapon when five-star freshman Raleek Brown enters the mix this fall.


Riley’s approach at running back has varied over the years. Last season at Oklahoma, he used Kennedy Brooks as a three-down workhorse. This season, the backfield is shaping up for a more balanced approach.


Fierce receiver competition

USC added three transfers to help remake the receiver room, and so far all three have been fixtures in the two-deep to start spring.

Mario Williams is lightning quick. Brenden Rice is an impressive physical specimen. And Terrell Bynum falls somewhere in between. The question isn’t so much whether those new guys will play, but how many returners will factor in to the rotation.

USC receiver Gary Bryant Jr. sets up for a play against BYU
USC receiver Gary Bryant Jr. sets up for a play against BYU in Los Angeles Nov. 27.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Gary Bryant seems sure to carve out a role, while Tahj Washington has earned early praise. Freshman C.J. Williams clearly has the talent to make an impact. Kyle Ford, Michael Jackson III and Kyron Ware-Hudson will be fighting through the fall to get on the field.

That competition, Simmons said, “is as wide [open] as this field is.”



Room to improve

Defensive end Korey Foreman and linebacker Raesjon Davis, the crown jewels of USC’s 2021 recruiting class, have a long way to go. They were two of the top 2021 prospects in the nation. But after disappointing freshman seasons at USC, both have glaring questions to answer as sophomores.

Neither has put his best foot forward yet. Foreman has been limited this spring with a knee injury, robbing him of crucial time to learn USC’s new defense. Davis has been healthy, but established this week that he’s “got some maturing to do,” according to linebackers coach Brian Odom.

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USC desperately needs both players to develop ahead of next season. The jury is still out on whether they’ll live up to expectations.


Thin up front

USC only has 13 scholarship offensive linemen. That’s not ideal. Ty Buchanan‘s announcement Thursday that he was entering the transfer portal only exacerbated an already concerning depth problem up front. Of those 13, only eight or so are linemen USC would trust right now to play in a game.

That’s simply not enough depth to take into a season. With that in mind, the upcoming decision from five-star offensive tackle Josh Conerly Jr. looms large. A top-15 prospect, Conerly could make an immediate impact on a line with unanswered questions on the edges.

Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins was supposed to help, but he’s been limited to start spring with a foot injury.


Tuipulotu leads

Tuli Tuipulotu is leading the way on USC’s defensive line. Shaun Nua spent last season coaching Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo at Michigan, two top talents in the upcoming draft. Asked if any of his new USC defensive linemen shared a similar mentality to either of those two, he didn’t hesitate.

“Tuli, right now,” Nua said.

Washington State offensive lineman Liam Ryan blocks USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu
Washington State offensive lineman Liam Ryan blocks USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu (49) in a game on Sept. 18 in Pullman, Wash.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)


It’s no surprise that Tuipulotu would stand out early in spring. The only question now is how Nua and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch plan to deploy him.

“He’ll be everywhere,” Nua said. “He can play everything, seriously.”


Bullock’s progress

Calen Bullock is the only returning starter in USC’s secondary, but he’s nowhere near a finished product. A silver lining in a dark season, Bullock established himself as a future standout as a freshman. But Grinch hasn’t let the young safety rest on those laurels.

“You’re seeing a guy that has a little bit of confidence going into his second year, which you would expect for a guy like that.” Grinch said. “You see some speed elements, a guy that can run the show on the back end and make some communications that way. Still a young player.

“What’s he got to fix? He’s got to become a bigger athlete. The sport demands that of you. So he’s one of those guys that has to put on some weight, put on some muscle. He’s got to look like a second-year guy. The things that made him a good player, give him credit for that as a freshman. OK, well, as a sophomore, the evaluation changes.”


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The rest of USC’s secondary should be completely different. The Trojans brought in transfer cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Latrell McCutchin, and signed three defensive backs in its 2022 class, including the state’s top prospect, Mater Dei High cornerback Domani Jackson.


Answers at kicker

Alex Stadthaus is likely to be USC’s kicker. Previously a walk-on, Stadthaus entered the transfer portal in December when he wasn’t sure if he could afford to forge on at USC without a scholarship.

But Riley came through, offering him one. Stadthaus, in turn, took his name out of the portal, making him the likeliest candidate to kick for USC this fall.

The Trojans also will be breaking in a new punter with Australian freshman Atticus Bertrams. They’ll do so, too, without the help of a full-time special teams coach.