At USC, Lincoln Riley has put together LA's next super team
The headline, the cover image, it’s all iconic at this point. Legendary sportswriter Lee Jenkins, now working for the Los Angeles Clippers, penned the piece for Sports Illustrated when the Los Angeles Lakers added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a team that featured Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. It was to be a super team. The Lakers were supposed to meet the East Coast elites—the Miami Heat—for NBA titles.
“Now this is going to be fun.”
Those words flashed to mind when the tweet flashed across the timeline. Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff winner and now-former Pittsburgh wideout, has agreed to take his talents West and join Lincoln Riley at USC.
The Trojans have assembled a super team.
At least, a super offense.
And with the NCAA relaxing its restrictions on conference championship games, paving the way for the Pac-12 to all but eliminate divisions immediately for the 2022 season, only an epic, Laker-level meltdown seems like it can keep this Trojan team from playing for a conference championship in Riley’s first year.
That Laker team serves as the cautionary tale. No matter how easy things might look on paper, it’s never quite as such when the ball gets rolled out and the action goes live. Chemistry matters. Depth matters. Fit matters.
The 2012-13 Lakers were swept in the first round of the NBA Playoffs after finishing the regular season only eight games above .500. The San Antonio Spurs were the better team. The Lakers were a collection of hired guns, dragged by one guy interested in the grind and a few others more interested in the destination.
USC has to be all in and all together.
The easy part is over.
With the allure of sunshine and beaches and LA stars, and the prospect of making a blue blood great once again, USC has proven to be a remarkably easy place to recruit to with the right man in charge. (It’ll need to win to keep it that way.) Lincoln Riley was able to find a Heisman-caliber quarterback and the Pac-12’s reigning all-purpose yardage leader at running back and the country’s best wide receiver all in about six months.
It was the perfect storm—with NIL opportunities aplenty—and Riley played his hand brilliantly.
The hard part begins now.
There are no excuses for this to not work.
Over the last five years, FBS teams have averaged 29.0 points per game. During that time, Riley’s offenses at his previous school averaged 43.6 points per game. No FBS program has averaged more. In four of his five seasons as a head coach, his teams have averaged at least 40 a game and in the lone season they didn’t, the scoring average was 39.1 points. And throughout his time as a head coach, he has faced more top-50 defenses in the regular season than Alabama.
Riley’s rise to coaching stardom has been paved by his ability to construct lethal offenses.
At Oklahoma, when things were rolling, he had Heisman quarterbacks and 1,000-yard receivers and future NFL running backs. At USC, it appears he has all those same toys once again. The knock that Riley “can’t do it with his own guys” or can’t develop doesn’t apply.
With the transfer portal and the NIL market the way it is, he doesn’t need his own guys. He’ll just take yours. Don’t like it? Blame the NCAA. Riley doesn’t have to care what we all think about his methods if the results put championship rings on his fingers.
The whole world learned on Thursday that even the sport’s kings aren’t averse to playing in the mud.
Start at quarterback, the most important position on the field, where Riley has a guy in Caleb Williams who finished last season fourth nationally in ESPN’s QBR and enters his second season as one of the betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Williams can hurt teams with his playmaking ability once a play breaks down, and he has the arm talent to make any throw.
Eying a future No. 1 overall pick, Williams transferred from Oklahoma last winter to USC because he believes Riley is the coach best suited to help him reach that goal and Riley’s system is the one best suited to maximize his talent.
Around Williams, USC has added former top-50 wideout Mario Williams and now Addison. Mario Williams can be a safety valve kind of player for his quarterback. The two have pre-established trust from their time together at Oklahoma. At least in Year 1, Mario Williams can be a guy Caleb Williams goes to when all other options break down. And what a talent to have as your safety net.
At Pitt, the 6-foot Addison spent 68% of his snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. At Oklahoma, Mario Williams spent 89% of his snaps out wide.
Place those two on the same side of the formation.
Now you have a choice of who to run out at flanker: the 6-foot-1 Terrell Bynum with a career 14.4 yards-per-catch average, the 6-foot-3 Brenden Rice, the 5-foot-11 Gary Bryant Jr. who caught 44 balls for 579 yards and seven scores last season, the 5-foot-11 Tahj Washington who caught 54 for 600, or the 6-foot-3 Kyle Ford who’s a former top-40 recruit. USC will rotate wideouts heavily, but Riley is walking into a garage filled with supercars.
“But defenses will just drop eight and rush three.”
Cool, Riley can turn to Travis Dye, who ran the ball for 1,271 yards and 16 touchdowns at 6 yards per carry last season while also hauling in more than 400 receiving yards. Dye’s at his best in space. He should have a lot of space.
“But the offensive line is a poor one.”
On passing downs last season USC posted the 11th-best sack rate in the country. On all downs, USC posted the ninth-best sack rate in the country. Using PFF’s tracking data, the Trojan line gave up 20 quarterback hits and 61 hurries. Their allowed pressure rate (16.7%) was the 13th-best mark among the 64 Power Five programs and Notre Dame. The national average was 20.8%.
From that line, Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon, and Justin Dedich all return after finishing the 2021 season with three of the six highest grades given to Pac-12 offensive linemen by PFF. Vorhees was the only Power Five player in the country to earn a 90-plus grade from PFF as a run-blocker and a pass-blocker. Bobby Haskins is expected to take over the left tackle spot, allowing Vorhees to play guard full-time.
There are few—if any—holes on that side of the football.
USC could be gettable on defense, but the longer Riley is on the job and the more offensive firepower he stockpiles, the more it looks like that might not ultimately matter much.
If you want to beat USC, you’re going to have to outscore it. Utah might have to beat USC twice. Oregon might have to try and turn it into a slugfest. Those without a dominant line on either side of the ball… good luck.
With that fact comes pressure. Riley has said from Day 1 that he built a championship-caliber staff at USC to contend for championships. Nothing less. The bar, he said, should never be lower at a place like USC.
Oddsmakers have made the Trojans an early betting favorite in their league and in some of their highest-profile games, including a road contest with Utah on Oct. 15 and a home clash with Notre Dame in the final game of the regular season.
Three months ago, an 8-4 season looked like it would be an acceptable one. Now, that feels like it could be met with disappointment. Addison’s addition changes the picture that much.
No past-their-prime stars here. No divas yet. In a town made for superstars, USC has LA’s next super team.
Now, this is going to be fun.