The Lincoln Riley era at USC is officially open to the public.

On Saturday, the Trojans held their annual spring game in front of what was a record attendance for such a USC event, giving fans their first glimpse of an almost entirely different roster and the brand new USC coaching staff. Here are some thoughts, a few notes, and some takeaways from the day’s action.

Believe the Caleb Williams buzz

There’s just such a presence when he’s in the pocket.

The star USC quarterback is entering into his second season of college football, first in Los Angeles, and he joked during an interview with ESPN’s Pete Thamel that aired mid-game that he doesn’t get approached in LA. Not like he did in Norman, Oklahoma. He went to a restaurant and spotted Kim Kardashian. In the land of mega-stars, Caleb Williams is an inconspicuous college student. That might not last very long.

Make it big at USC, rather win big at USC, and people will remember you. Williams looks to have the juice to power a major winning program at a high, high level. The extra stuff that comes with being the guy doesn’t seem to faze him.

Williams wasn’t panicked. Of course, it probably helps that he wasn’t allowed to be touched and he knew it. But there was an air of effortlessness about his performance. He hit each of his first nine passes, leading touchdown drives twice in the first half of the game. Both scores were of the pitch-and-catch variety to former Oklahoma teammate and new USC wideout Mario Williams.

On the first score, Caleb Williams did nothing but drop a ball in. Mario Williams beat his man off the line with a solid release. On the second score, though, both showcased what makes them special.

That’s a nice ball and not an easy throw.

This one was better.

Special players make non-routine throws look routine. That’s a special throw even if he knows he’s not about to be hit. Williams will give USC an escapability component thanks to his legs—several times he took off and picked up positive yardage when the situation presented itself—but when he hangs in the pocket he delivers some nice throws.

The ball jumps out of his hand. Buy stock in this passing attack.

Playmaking potential on defense

Auburn transfer Romello Height and third-year lineman Tuli Tuipulotu jumped out to me from the front seven. Height took on a block in backside pursuit early on in the action Saturday afternoon, went right through his guy, and swallowed Travis Dye for a short gainer. The edge rusher looks exactly how you’d expect an SEC defender to look. He’s well-put-together.

Tuipulotu was also all over the field and, more specifically, often in the backfield. He’s a good-looking end for the USC defense. The First Team All-Pac-12 selection had 5.5 sacks in 2021 and was one of the best talents in all of the conference. He’s got good size and quickness off the edge and looks like the kind of player defensive coordinator Alex Grinch can turn into a havoc-producing machine like some of the edge guys he had at Oklahoma.

The other guy who jumped out was cornerback Latrell McCutchin, specifically for his physicality. He laid an absolutely bone-crushing hit on a USC tailback coming out of the backfield in the second half of the game, a hit so vicious the officials on hand actually flagged him for targeting. 

It was an incorrect targeting call—McCutchin put his shoulder to the tailback’s midsection—but perhaps a good lesson for the former Oklahoma defensive back on what awaits during the regular season. Joking. Kind of.

Grinch plays an attacking style of defense. USC will need guys to make splash plays. This summer will be about continuing to build up the mental piece for the guys on the roster already who appear capable of doing so and then adding maybe one or two more who can pitch in.

It’s worth noting that Colorado transfer defensive back Mekhi Blackmon was said to be another guy who had a strong spring and he was not on the field for Saturday.

Also, a section about playmakers on defense that hasn’t yet mentioned Korey Foreman? USC can bring him along if Height and Tulipulotu are popping. That would be an excellent spot to be in.

Another SEC guy

Shane Lee hits hard too.

The inside linebacker and former Alabama man, Lee looks like he’ll be an integral part of USC’s team moving forward because, well, he kinda already is. By all accounts Lee has been a culture-keeper for Riley and the new staff, setting standards and making sure guys meet them while also setting the tone on the field with his play.

That other QB

Miller Moss is no slouch, now.

The second-year quarterback might have had the best throw of the day, an on-the-money shot downfield to Kyle Ford for a 48-yard touchdown.

Moss has been an unsung hero throughout USC’s spring period. The 2021 signee is the only other healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster this spring and though he’s more than likely going to spend another season in a reserve capacity, he’s given Caleb Williams competition every day.

“I really enjoy coaching Miller,” Riley said earlier this spring. “I really have and he’s one of those guys that has gotten so many reps. He’s Exhibit A on that. He’s had 50% of the reps and he is one of the guys that has taken full advantage. He had strung together several nice days in a row right now. He’s throwing the ball extremely well. Mentally, he’s getting more comfortable every day. He’s played very efficient, made a lot of explosive plays. I’ve been extremely impressed with the way he prepares and you can just tell his confidence is really growing.”

Moss moved up and around in the pocket with fluidity and good instincts. When he went deep, he was on-target with the ball. USC is probably hoping to add a bit more depth to its quarterback room just for insurance, but Moss looks like a more-than-capable backup for Williams.

Going to treat this next line sort of how you talk about an ongoing perfect game bid: if called upon, Moss feels like a guy who could step up.

Other notes and random thoughts:

>> Coming out of the Mike Leach school of thought, the entry-level stuff with Riley is that he’s a pass-first, air-raid kind of coach. As a head coach, Riley-led offenses have posted run rates at or above 51% in four of his five seasons—52% (2017), 54% (2018), 56% (2019), and 51% (2020). Riley’s style is uniquely his own. So, when USC talks about wanting to run the football, trust that it’s not just lip service.

“You have to (run the ball) to win championships. Period,” he told ESPN’s Molly McGrath after the game. “And if you look at the history of this school, some of the great teams, the national championships teams, were elite at running the ball. It’s going to be our expectation to do that.”

Half of USC’s first 12 called plays were designed runs.

>> To that end, figuring out how the backfield rotation shakes out is going to be a problem for this coaching staff. Travis Dye, the Oregon transfer, didn’t come to Southern California to spend his last season of college ball riding the bench, but he also didn’t join a room where he’s going to have to be an every-down guy. Darwin Barlow looked good. Austin Jones looks good. Raleek Brown is coming. That room looks like a deep one.

>> Same for the wideout group. Riley is clearly going to rotate a bunch of guys in and out of that group. Mario Williams, Kyle Ford, and Washington transfer Terrell Bynum were the first three wideouts on the field, but there were a number of guys who rotated in and saw decent snaps.

>> Former USC offensive lineman Jalen McKenzie on the Trojans up front:

There was good give and take. The defensive front got pushed back a little at the very beginning of the game but they gave it right back to the offense at times in the second half.

>> This roster is not done. So much of this picture could change by the time fall camp rolls around. For one, USC’s secondary wasn’t close to full strength. But that can probably be said across the board. There are going to be more newcomers still. That’s been the message from just about everyone throughout spring ball. But…

“We’ve got to add some numbers. We know that,” he began. “But I’ll tell you what, the guys right here we can go win a lot of games with. I love the way they fought. We’ll add some key pieces here in the next several weeks, but these guys have set the foundation and that’s what matters.”

>> It would be cool if we could all agree that spring game attendance commentary is dumb.

>> Stats from the game, which will go down as a 34-27 win for the offense after the defense began with 21 points on the board: