USC coach Lincoln Riley: ‘We’re excited about where we’re headed defensively’

USC quarterback Caleb Williams and coach Lincoln Riley watch play during the Cotton Bowl game against Tulane.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) and coach Lincoln Riley look on during the first half of the Cotton Bowl game against Tulane on Jan. 2 in Arlington, Texas.
(Sam Hodde / Associated Press)

When Lincoln Riley stepped onto the practice field this past Sunday at the start of his second spring as USC’s football coach, the task in front of him felt a bit less daunting than it did a year ago.

The foundation of the program was already formed, the core beliefs already ingrained, the processes put into place. There were fewer questions to answer, fewer details to address.

“You have a sense that we’re building upon something now as opposed to just starting something,” Riley said Tuesday. “Now it’s time to really build. And I think our guys sense that. I think there’s certainly a lot less new, but at the same time, we’ve pushed the guys to understand that what was acceptable 12 months ago is not necessarily acceptable now.”


Nowhere is that more true for USC at the start of spring than on defense, where one need only travel back two months to understand what unacceptable looks like.

USC’s disastrous defeat in the Cotton Bowl in January certainly raised plenty of questions about the direction of its defense and the future of coordinator Alex Grinch. Though Grinch was retained, the rest of that underperforming defense is already looking plenty different.

Seven incoming transfers and freshmen along the defensive front. Five more added to the secondary. And more sure to come in the summer.

“What the answer was at times last year won’t necessarily be the same answer this year,” Riley said when asked about the defense. “Those things are going to evolve and change, especially as these rosters fluctuate. But we’ve really been able to take a very good look at these guys, two days in, and I’ll say this. We’re excited about where we’re headed defensively.”

With the honeymoon over for coach Lincoln Riley, here are the players to watch as USC begins spring football practice this week.

March 5, 2023

Reporters and fans won’t get an extended look at the defense until USC’s spring game April 15. But Riley offered some idea of where it stands Tuesday. He pointed to strength and weight gains in the secondary, which he felt wasn’t physical enough last season, and reiterated there will be several new starters along the defensive front.

Riley said there’s finally some depth at linebacker. Oklahoma State Mason Cobb has made an especially strong early impression, emerging as a vocal leader in the locker room much like senior Shane Lee did last spring.


“We’re really excited about some of the talent we brought and some of the talent that’s been on this roster that’s been developed,” Riley said. “We expect to be an extremely high-level defense here at USC. No reason in the world why we can’t and why we won’t be. And we expect that that will happen and happen soon.”

Nelson arrives

Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson waits to enter the field before a high school football game.
Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson waits to enter the field before a high school football game against Newport Harbor High School on Sept. 30, 2022, in Newport Beach.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It hasn’t been an ideal start at USC for five-star freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson, who underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in late December, days before coming to campus.

That plan was coordinated with USC. But it didn’t leave much time for Nelson to get his arm acclimated for spring. He didn’t start throwing fully until Sunday, the first day of USC’s spring practices.

“For a QB, that’s like a golfer going out and playing a tournament without practicing or hitting balls for three months,” Riley said. “He’s done well the first few days. He makes some plays where you see his ability, and certainly there’s plenty of mistakes. Every single play, we’ve got something to learn from. But he seems to take it and grasp it quick.”

Nelson should have plenty of time to find his footing from here. With the defending Heisman winner ahead of him on the depth chart, there’s no need to rush Nelson’s development. Even behind Caleb Williams, USC already has a capable backup in Miller Moss.


Having those experienced passers around Nelson, Riley said, “has been a big plus.”

The freshman still isn’t cleared for full contact, but quarterbacks don’t take contact during spring, anyway. Beyond that, Riley said there are “not too many limitations” with Nelson.

“We’ll have to be careful with him in team settings,” Riley said, “but we’ll be able to do most of the things, which is obviously key for his development.”

Check out which players are leaving and which are joining the UCLA and USC football program via the transfer portal.

Jan. 23, 2023

Gentry out

USC linebacker Eric Gentry reacts during the second half against Oregon State.
USC linebacker Eric Gentry reacts during the second half against Oregon State on Sept. 24, 2022, in Corvallis, Ore.
(Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

USC hoped that some rest and rehab might be enough for inside linebacker Eric Gentry’s injured ankle to fully recover. But as the weeks passed this offseason, that progress never quite materialized.

Eventually, Gentry opted for ankle surgery. The procedure will keep him out for the rest of spring.

“He’ll be back very, very quickly after,” the coach said. “And probably would’ve missed spring ball regardless of when he had the surgery.”