Lincoln Riley will not load up the USC football roster with California kids simply because they are California kids. The Trojan head coach said Thursday they have to be the right fit above anything else.

When Riley took over the program following the 2021 football season, USC’s brand had hit a new low. The top talent in the state was heading elsewhere. The Trojans weren’t winning. Elite high school prospects had options.

USC still got some major commitments — Clay Helton signed two of the top 10 players in the nation in the 2018 class, and he signed the No. 3 recruit in the 2021 class. But the Trojans also had some horrible years on the trail.

“You knew you were rebuilding something,” Riley said. “There’s a process that we’re right in the middle of.”

California has been an emphasis throughout, though.

In Riley’s first class in 2022, USC signed four local players to its eight-man class. Last cycle, 12 of the 23 enrollees were California recruits.

So far in 2024, five of the 16 known commitments are from California.

The top five players in the state this cycle are all pledged elsewhere. USC has a pledge from just one of the top 10 recruits. Two will play for Oregon.

Asked about their local standing on Thursday, Riley said USC still has a strong brand.

“At the end of the day, if you go win the national championship and you have a roster mixed from all over the country, nobody’s going to say, ‘Ah, well, that’s great you won a national championship but you don’t have 80% local guys,'” Riley said. “The flip side is if you don’t have a good year, they’re not going to say, ‘Well, at least he has a bunch of California kids on this team.”

Riley said USC “clearly” still has to win more than it loses when it comes to local recruiting, but he stressed that the players have to be the right players.

“I think in my evaluation of the program when we got here and started looking at the roster, I think there were a lot of players from the state of California that, in my opinion, should not be on the USC roster for one reason or another,” Riley said. “So, hiding behind the curtain of, ‘Well, at least we’re recruiting California kids,’ doesn’t do the program any good.

“Yeah, we want to get California kids. We want to get local kids. We want them to be the right kids, the right kind of kids, right kind of students, right kind of players that fit within what we’re building. Not ones that go against the grain of what we’re building.”

Riley feels the Big Ten will elevate things even more for USC from a national perspective.

“The exciting thing is I still think we’re on the beginning stages of this from a recruiting standpoint and what it can be,” Riley said. “I think we can go toe-to-toe with anybody right now and I don’t even think we’re at our best yet.”