After an uneventful open to the Early Signing Period, Lincoln Riley and USC set out on crucial next few months
There are two sides to the coin, right? There’s the acquisition piece and the developmental piece. Good salesmen can make good recruiters and win the signing day press conference, but when the rubber meets the road and it’s time to build a team—not just a class—some fall short.
This Trojan team that just went 4-8 had the 4th-ranked signing class in 2018 and the 7th-ranked signing class in 2021. Clay Helton brought talent to LA. Southern Cal was 10th in the 247 Talent Composite for this past season. It was the only team in the top 10 to finish with a sub-.500 record and one of only 3 schools who failed to hit at least 8 wins. All 3 of those programs changed coaches this offseason.
As new head coach Lincoln Riley goes about reconstructing the USC roster to better fit his vision, there’s a careful line to be struck. With only a 6-man class at the opening of the Early Signing Period and talk of a drastic roster flip, Riley needs to thread the needle.
Of course, a team with top-10 talent doesn’t win only 4 games, and the latter stages of USC’s 2021 season didn’t much resemble a top-10 team. And a new coach brings with him new ideas and in almost every instance new players. But this will be a process.
“We’re getting ready to, in a lot of ways, overhaul this roster. Today is one step in a process,” Riley said during an appearance on the Pac-12 Network Wednesday. “This, in a lot of ways, is just another day for us. When you’re getting ready to turn over the number of spots we’re getting ready to turn over, there’s an understanding that it’s a process.”
And it’ll probably be slower than some would like.
The top player in the state of California, Mater Dei 5-star corner Domani Jackson, will decide on Friday between the Trojans and Alabama. Jackson is a priority for Riley and for USC. The new coach has spoken openly and often since taking the job about needing to keep the best players in California in California. Riley will get no quarter if Jackson eschews USC for the Tide. It might not be fair given the expedited timeline here, but it’s likely to be reality. Jackson will represent Riley’s first big moment.
Raleek Brown, a 5-star running back and Jackson’s teammate at Mater Dei, knew Riley already. He was committed to the Sooner coach and now he’s committed to the same Trojan coach. Riley said during his Pac-12 Network appearance that he could feel Brown wanted to go to USC, but the right person wasn’t in place. There’s a relationship there.
“We can’t just rely on a logo or history to be the only reason to think guys are going to sign here,” Riley said. “We’ve got to create an experience that makes it so (local recruits) want to be here.”
One way or another, Jackson’s decision will swing Riley’s transition class—or at least the perception of it—in a way Brown’s couldn’t. And whatever happens on Friday, it could be a bit before the Trojans step back onto the national stage for a prospect.
Four-star Mater Dei receiver C.J. Williams de-committed from Notre Dame ahead of the Early Signing Period and after taking an official to USC, but he won’t announce his decision until Jan. 8 at the All-American Bowl, per the LA Times’ Ryan Kartje. Though he’ll sign this week, per Kartje, an announcement from 4-star Bishop Gorman edge rusher Cyrus Moss also won’t come until the All-American Bowl. Some of the remaining top uncommitted 2022 prospects will wait until February.
But no matter how successful Riley’s first class ends up becoming, it’s tough to flip a roster in one offseason. Riley could bring a star quarterback with him from the transfer portal to serve as a stop-gap option until Malachi Nelson is ready to take over (or Jaxson Dart could thoroughly impress his new coach), but the Trojans ranked 31st this season in offensive success rate. Riley’s scheme should help create some more explosives and Brown could make for a Day 1 playmaker, but the offense probably only needs tweaks and adjustments, especially so if Riley settles the quarterback spot in a way many think he will. That side of the ball won’t be much of a concern.
The defense, however, that unit ranked 113th in success rate allowed. Defense has never been Riley’s speciality, and it took Alex Grinch a few seasons to get the Sooners playing at an appropriate level.
Depth will be important. Competition will be important. If Riley can foster both while supplementing what he has with what he needs, watch out. If the talk of what he needs pushes more out the door than he can afford, things will get interesting.
The risk a new coach runs when he comes in and talks about flipping a roster, upping the talent level, is alienating the talent he already has. Maybe Riley’s plan behind the scenes makes all of this much ado about nothing and come Sept. 3 he has a team he feels can challenge for the South because it’s Lincoln friggin’ Riley and this is U-S-friggin’-C.
No doubt, the next few months will be incredibly interesting to monitor.