Hayes: Already really good, USC is taking the next step to becoming great
It’s not that they were a freak injury to the best player on the field from advancing to the Playoff.
It’s that USC was that close to pulling it off in the first place.
“Just the little things that maybe Year 1 you have to spend so much time on,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said about the transition to 2023. “There’s a little less of that.”
And a lot more talent.
So here we are, a year removed from Riley taking a 4-win team in 2021 — a wayward program with 20 losses in the previous 3 non-COVID seasons — and getting to within a hamstring injury to All-American quarterback Caleb Williams from advancing to the Playoff. And now what?
The Heisman Trophy winner (Williams) returns, a more impactful transfer portal class has arrived, and we’re staring at what played out at Oklahoma in Riley’s 5 seasons.
USC can be good under Riley — but can it be great?https://sportsbook.fanduel.com/football?tab=ncaaf-futures
Oklahoma won an overmatched conference (hello, Pac-12), and Riley took the Sooners to 3 straight Playoffs. They lost in overtime to Georgia, and got clobbered by Alabama and LSU.
The Sooners couldn’t play defense when it mattered most, and — ta-da! — guess who struggled defensively last season in big games? Guess who couldn’t get off the field, and wasn’t physical enough and didn’t have a killer instinct?
There’s only 1 way it changes at USC, the same way Pete Carroll turned it 2 decades ago: better players.
It begins with a top 10 recruiting class to reset the player procurement process of the rebuild. Riley wasn’t going to bag high school recruiting — the foundation of building a program — after signing only 8 players in his first class.
He signed 8 in 2022 because unlike most new staffs that recruit whatever they can get their hands on, Riley zeroed in on who could help immediately — then hit the transfer portal for the same. USC signed 20 players from the portal in 2022, and sits at 13 this spring.
There will be more additions from the portal — like recently added DT Bear Alexander from Georgia — but the process of flipping and cultivating the roster through the foundation of high school recruits has begun.
USC could win the Pac-12 this season and advance to the Playoff. The Trojans could lose in the semifinals, just like his Sooners did with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and an offense that lit up scoreboards.
But the buildout is just beginning — and strengthening with each month.
It showed in spring practice, with little things will eventually translate to big things. Just how little?
A year ago at this time, Riley admitted the staff was not just teaching the playbook, but basic install and expectations.
“How to practice,” he says.
Think about what Riley and his staff had to work with last season at USC: a program in disarray, a depleted roster whose top 2 quarterbacks (and a handful of young talent) had transferred, 20 players from the portal who had to assimilate not only with the current roster, but each other, and to a new system and new expectations, and learning how, of all things, to practice properly.
It’s laughable, really.
But that’s how far it had devolved, how far USC was from playing games that mattered in November. It’s a minor miracle they pulled it off and got to the Pac-12 Championship Game against Utah, before Williams’ hamstring gave out and everything fell apart.
Now they’ve gone from basic install — from learning to line up correctly — and expectations in the first spring, to situational work this time around. The moments in games, Riley says, that determine wins and losses.
There are critical portal transfers that will contribute to getting past what didn’t work in 2022, most notably getting off the field on defense. USC was 109th in the nation last year in opponent 3rd-down conversion (42.9%), and 124th in opponent big plays — a whopping 216 of 10+ yards, and a staggering 75 of 20+ yards.
They’ve added DEs Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M) and Jack Sullivan (Purdue), and Alexander in the middle. They added CB Christian Roland-Wallace (Arizona) — who was playing as well as any corner in the Pac-12 by the end of last season — and LB Mason Cobb, a 2022 All-Big 12 selection at Oklahoma State.
Portal transfers from last year — LB Shane Lee (Alabama), CB Jason Covington (Washington) — are playing faster and with more confidence because they know what’s expected. Former blue-chip recruit Solomon Tuliaupupu, whose first 3 seasons at USC were lost with multiple injuries, got on the field for the first time last year and played like a freshman.
Four months later, Riley believes the 5th-year senior defensive end will be a significant factor in the USC pass rush this fall. It’s no longer all new, and the program as a whole is moving into recruit and development mode.
Nearly half of the 21 high school signees were midterm enrollees, and by next season, the portal number will decrease again. USC has 1 more season with Williams, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
The Trojans could win the Pac-12 and advance to the Playoff, and get knocked out in the semifinals — and look just like Oklahoma. But the buildout is far from complete.
“Those in here on a daily basis can tell a difference,” Riley said. “Everything isn’t brand new, even for us as a staff and the way we work together.”
It’s the first major step from good to great.