Five questions: USC enters its spring game with sky-high hype and anticipation
Almost six months ago, in his first official introduction as USC coach, Lincoln Riley stared out across an empty Coliseum and made a bold promise.
“This place is going to be full,” Riley proclaimed. “This place is going to be the mecca of college football.”
Mecca won’t be built in a matter of months. But we’ll finally catch a glimpse of the progress when USC takes the field Saturday at noon for what’s surely the most anticipated spring game in program history.
That anticipation has been building ever since Riley’s stunning hire in November, so much so that ESPN will broadcast the scrimmage nationally, making USC’s the only spring game to get such exposure. The school is doing its part, too, to capitalize on that enthusiasm, making tickets free to fans in hopes of turning an otherwise glorified practice into a spring football extravaganza, complete with carnival games, food trucks, photo ops and giveaways.
That’s all just window dressing, of course, to what most fans will come out or tune in to see — tangible, firsthand proof that Riley is righting the ship at USC.
The Trojans’ new coach knows they won’t wait long for those expectations to be met.
USC is dealing with lack of depth in many positions which will give players experience and the need to step up this upcoming season.
“People, as you learn, particularly in this town, they want to support winners,” Riley said this week. “They want to support excellence. They want to support success. We understand that. We don’t shy away from that.”
None of that will be clear after a single scrimmage. But after a spring of closed practices, the spring game should offer some answers to the many questions we still have about USC football at the start of a new era.
How many fans will show up?
By the end of last season, vast swaths of empty bleachers became the sad norm at the Coliseum. So how much can hiring a new coach fill those seats before a single game has been played?
Riley wasn’t about to venture a guess, while others at USC remain unsure of what to expect from the crowd Saturday. Everyone involved understands a strong turnout would set an important tone for a program that’s desperate to lay a new foundation with fans.
“There’s a lot of energy around this program right now, a lot of excitement,” Riley said. “I think they’ve really had an extremely positive spring, and with that and all the momentum with the program, I know it would mean a lot to our guys to have a great, energetic crowd. That’s what we expect, just like they expect things out of us.”
So what’s fair to expect? Hard to say. But the last pre-pandemic spring game held at USC managed a measly attendance estimated around 2,000.
Suffice to say, USC should have no problem clearing that low bar, at least.
How does Caleb Williams look at the helm of USC’s offense?
No one steps into a brighter spring game spotlight than USC’s new quarterback. All eyes will be on Williams as he takes the reins of a remade Trojan offense. Though how much we’ll actually see of Riley’s new scheme is still unclear.
“Probably not much,” Williams conceded this week.
We should, however, see plenty of what makes Williams a preseason Heisman contender and one of the most talented passers in college football. His dual threat skill set is unlike any USC has ever seen at the quarterback position. And with a season already under his belt in Riley’s offense, it’s fair to expect the sophomore will be even better than he was a year ago, when he first captivated the college football masses.
Reviews from teammates and coaches have been glowing so far this spring. Expect that hype train to pick up speed.
What’s the hierarchy at receiver?
As USC’s new receivers coach, Dennis Simmons couldn’t be any more clear at the start of spring. The race within the receiving corps, he explained at the time, was “wide open,” with every role available for the taking.
Details of that competition have been scant since. But clarity could be coming Saturday, as USC puts its current pecking order at the position on public display.
Mario Williams, a former five-star prospect who came with Riley from Oklahoma, seems assured of a role as one of USC’s lead outside receivers. The same could be said for Colorado transfer Brenden Rice, whose size and skill set have seemed to set him apart so far this spring.
It’s a muddled depth chart beyond that, with returning receivers like Gary Bryant Jr., Tahj Washington, Kyle Ford and Kyron Ware-Hudson and transfer Terrell Bynum all standing out at various points of the spring. Riley has said he plans to play at least eight receivers, and each of those candidates should get a chance Saturday to separate themselves.
Is Korey Foreman rounding into form?
The former No. 1 overall recruit missed the start of spring due to a knee injury. Upon his return, he’s said all the right things about putting a frustrating freshman season behind him.
But last season raised questions about his development that have yet to be answered, including his capability on early downs and against the run. His extended spring absence also means he’s a few steps behind Auburn transfer Romello Height for the time being. Height, meanwhile, has been one of the standouts of camp, according to USC coaches, as his speed off the edge matches exactly what defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is looking for in an edge rusher.
Talent has never been a question for Foreman, but Riley has made clear he doesn’t care about recruiting pedigree. Foreman is going to have to earn his place over the next several months, starting Saturday.
How will USC’s new transfers transform both sides of the ball?
Count on hearing a lot of new names. That starts, of course, with Caleb Williams, but also extends deeper into the backfield — with transfer backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones — and receiver room — with Rice, Bynum and Mario Williams.
Offensively, we could be talking about a revamped arrangement of playmakers, reconstructed entirely through the transfer portal.
Even still, the starkest differences could still be on the defensive end, where USC was largely listless last season.
No player has received more effusive praise this spring than linebacker Shane Lee, the Alabama transfer. Lee was a freshman All-American in 2019, but never quite recaptured that early success in the two seasons that followed. He hasn’t had that problem at USC, where it took only a few weeks for him to establish himself as a difference-maker.
USC wide receiver Drake London got his chance to show off some moves on his surgically repaired ankle in front of scouts from a dozen NFL teams.
Similar high praise has been heaped on transfer cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, who’s unlikely to play Saturday.
“He’s a dog. He’s a leader,” sophomore corner Prophet Brown said of the senior, who previously played at Colorado. “He’s just what we needed, an older guy to come in and lead us young guys.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.