July 19, 2024

Two years under Lincoln Riley and USC is facing a major reset once again


LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, Lincoln Riley walked into a room at Heritage Hall — the home of USC Athletics — a few weeks into his tenure as the new head coach to talk about a high school recruiting class that had been put together in a flash. After a shocking departure from Oklahoma to Southern California, Riley’s coaching staff was still in flux, the Trojans’ future quarterback was still a question mark, and the process of, as he put it, “building a championship team,” had just begun.

Riley walked into the same room last week and though he had spent more time building this year’s recruiting class, there was a certain feeling of déjà vu in the air. His coaching staff — at least defensively — is still not fully finalized and USC’s future quarterback situation is once again unresolved. Even as Riley once again reiterated that this is all part of USC’s journey to achieving the ultimate goal, he couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of being right back where everything began.

“There’s a part of me that has felt that way,” Riley said of the recruiting approach resembling his first year. “Because a lot of it is brand new, and in some ways, a lot of ways, [we are] starting over.”

Two years into Riley’s hiring, the program has experienced two seasons that have felt like polar opposites.

His debut campaign featured an 11-1 regular season and a Heisman Trophy for Caleb Williams. Despite a humbling loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game that kept the Trojans out of the College Football playoff, they entered 2023 No. 6 in the country with national title aspirations. But a season that started 6-0 quickly fell apart with five losses in the team’s final six games, punctuated by an in-season defensive coordinator firing and a postseason exodus of former five-star recruits. It has left Riley to revamp a depleted staff and roster while trying to establish a consistent culture.

Add in the fact that the team has just gone through a six-week stretch without a game where it can neither bury its 2023 season, nor break ground on 2024, has created a unique situation for Riley & Co.

“It’s almost like you’re halfway at the end of this year and halfway into next year,” Riley said.

As USC prepares for the DIRECTV Holiday Bowl against Louisville (8 p.m. ET, Fox) to cap a year in which many expected it would be competing in the College Football Playoff, the program is at a pivotal point. The honeymoon period Riley experienced in his first season is over, and while the expected departure of Williams to the NFL sets up the Trojans for a reset, there is plenty to change and fix as USC tries to ensure a disappointing 2023 season becomes an aberration.

IF THERE ARE two moments that sum up USC’s 7-5 season, look no further than its final two games.

On a cold night in Eugene, Oregon, having battled back to within nine points of Oregon after being down 22 to start the fourth quarter, the USC defense needed to do what it was rarely able to all season: get a stop.

With just under four minutes left, Oregon ran twice for a first down before putting itself in a fourth-and-7 situation. Oregon coach Dan Lanning did not flinch and neither did his offense, securing the first down and running down the clock, never letting Williams or USC’s offense near the football again. Any far-fetched chances the Trojans had of sneaking into the Pac-12 title game vanished.

Just a week later, Williams delivered the final fitting image of the season.

Williams’ sophomore season had been replete with Heisman moments. He was a thrilling antidote for any growing pains USC had, and the Trojans were the toast of the sport after going 4-8 before Riley and Williams’ arrival. But when a defense that had forced 28 turnovers in the previous year regressed to the mean and struggled, Williams was unable to be Superman two seasons in a row, finishing with nearly 1,000 fewer passing yards and 12 fewer touchdowns.

So in USC’s final game of the season against UCLA, a 38-20 loss at home, all Williams could do was run off into the tunnel, head bowed, while his arms tried their best to salute the few scattered fans who remained in the Coliseum. Those who witnessed his meteoric ascent far outnumbered those present for his anticlimactic goodbye.

Despite dipping into the transfer portal to grab Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb, Texas A&M defensive lineman Anthony Lucas and Georgia defensive lineman Bear Alexander, the influx didn’t result in a collective improvement for USC’s defense, which finished 117th in the nation at both defending the pass and the run, as well as 111th in SP+ defensive rankings.

And even though it began 6-0, the USC defense surrendered explosive plays left and right that allowed Colorado and Arizona to nearly pull off upsets. Once USC had to travel to South Bend to face Notre Dame, its defense couldn’t bend anymore without breaking. Over the next six games (five losses), the unit allowed an average of 42.8 points, including 52 against Washington. Not even Williams, who alongside an inconsistent offensive line that also regressed in nearly every category, could paper over the mistakes.

Following the loss to Washington, both the results and the pressure — internal and external — were too much for Riley to do anything but fire defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, a move that several boosters had wanted him to make after USC’s loss to Tulane in last year’s Cotton Bowl Classic.

That loss in January seemed to cast an early cloud over this year’s USC team, or at least, put an amount of pressure and expectations it could not live up to, especially defensively. But Riley had also welcomed and even invited those expectations when first arriving in Southern California, saying that the Coliseum would be the mecca of college football and that he didn’t come to USC to “compete for second.”

But as this season progressed and results worsened, his tone shifted.

“We don’t come in every single week talking about winning a national championship, going to the playoffs,” Riley said after USC’s loss to Utah this season. “I don’t know where that narrative starts. … If you let the outside set expectations, you’re always being measured up against that.”

One year and 11 wins in, it was easy to see how Riley’s high barometer for the program could be achieved, perhaps faster than expected. But as losses piled up, the talk of expectations shifted and Riley framed them more as “outside noise” that his team needed to shut out.

“I think it’s fair to say that the team last year probably did overachieve,” Riley said in Salt Lake City. “Everybody expects you to be good. Everybody expects that you can have a championship-caliber team. And when you’re constantly trying to live up to those expectations, you can kind of fall away from maybe what puts you there in that position in the first place.”

Whether it was outside pressure or inside shortcomings, the 2023 season pointed toward one common thread: minor changes were not going to cut it if USC wanted to fulfill both external expectations and its own moving forward. And just as Riley entered the scene in 2021 as the potential savior for the program, USC has tabbed another young coach with the task of saving its defense going forward.

D’ANTON LYNN WON’T even have to change addresses.

The South Bay resident and former UCLA defensive coordinator has already mapped his commute into USC, and it turns out it’s roughly the same as his trip to Westwood. All he’s doing is trading one kind of traffic for another.

The state of USC’s defense following the ousting of Grinch required not just a new voice in the room but an entirely new directive. It led Riley to the Trojans’ crosstown rivals, where a young coach with NFL background had just put together, as Riley put it, “the best front in college football.” Once USC made it official, Lynn wasted no time in putting boots on the ground even if, he admitted, it was strange to go to local schools to recruit the same guys while wearing different colors.

“It’s been a lot,” Lynn said of the past few weeks, speaking with ESPN last week. Less than 24 hours after he was officially hired, he was in Georgia and then Connecticut for recruiting visits.

The whirlwind won’t settle anytime soon. While he initially was surprised Riley and USC would have interest in poaching a rival coach, he was immediately intrigued by the opportunity, not just for his own career, but for getting to be part of overcoming the issue at hand.

“The excitement and the challenge to get a chance to turn that defense around,” Lynn said. “And the potential at a school like that to do it, it was the right move for my career.”

While Lynn said in his opening news conference that the defense is “not that far away from success,” it felt pretty far all season long. But Lynn is being hailed (and paid) as the figure made for the job.

Lynn’s hiring has created a domino effect. USC nabbed North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz to be its new inside linebackers coach and head assistant coach while also hiring Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk to be its new secondary coach.

In the middle of player visits, transfer portal evaluations, finishing his staff and onboarding, Lynn is having to be in multiple modes at once: recruiter, coach and evaluator. After finally watching tape of USC’s games this past week, Lynn said he is looking for things that worked, things that didn’t and, perhaps most importantly, what kind of personnel he’s working with and what kind of personnel he will need to run his defense.

“I like guys that can play multiple spots, do multiple things.” Lynn said. “It helps us be able to get to a bunch of different looks with the same personnel on the field.”

According to Lynn, size will be a crucial requirement, too. As Riley emphasized in his signing day news conference, his nonnegotiable when looking at potential defensive coordinators was someone who “wanted to play bigger on the defensive front,” and this latest recruiting class included plenty of, as Riley called them, “large, large bodies.”

“We’re putting a bigger emphasis on size up front,” Lynn said. “The Big Ten is just a bigger conference in general, and at the end of the day you need to be able to control the line of scrimmage.”

It’s evident that both Lynn and Riley want to fully revamp the USC defense, but both know it will ultimately come down to not just recruiting the right players, but developing them, too. Lynn has only one year of college experience but, between his success at UCLA and the fact that his move has precipitated two UCLA defenders to transfer to USC (safety Kamari Ramsey and cornerback John Humphrey), his reputation is starting to follow him.

“It’s going to be fun to see how he puts his own twist on things,” USC defensive end Jamil Muhammad said after watching tape of UCLA’s defense from this season. “He really showcased their talents with how he used them.”

At the same time, USC has had its share of departures from talented players, too, including five-stars like quarterback Malachi Nelson, defensive end Korey Foreman, cornerback Domani Jackson and, earlier this month, wide receiver and running back Raleek Brown. While Riley admitted to being surprised by Nelson’s choice, Lynn isn’t flinching at any of the departures. As a former coach in the NFL, he is intimately familiar with the ever-changing nature of the sport.

“In the NFL, there are times where I’ve met a guy on Wednesday, he started for me on Sunday and then I say bye to him on Monday,” Lynn said.

Regarding the departures USC has had, Lynn said it has all been “addition by subtraction.”

If there is a clear indictment of USC since the glory days of the Pete Carroll era, it is that its defenses and player development have not resulted in turning five- and four-star prospects into not only great college players, but players who can be part of a system that produces winning teams year after year. Two years into Riley’s tenure, it’s too early to claim the same problem, but shades of those issues have surfaced.

Under Lynn, USC’s defense has begun the overhaul it needed, but the balance between trying to improve right away and build something stable for the long-term future remains as it might take plenty of growing pains and multiple recruiting classes for the results to fully present themselves. Lynn, for his part, is fully committed to the ride.

“I want to play great defense at SC. I want to call plays, I want to coordinate a deep defense,” Lynn said. “I want to build this thing from the ground up.”

JUSTIN DEDICH HAS seen a bit of everything in five years at USC. The offensive lineman, who played center last season, began his time with the team in 2018 is still here, having changed coaches, quarterbacks and positions. He’s taking extra snaps after a bowl practice.

“It’s a weird position to be in because normally, I’m like, I’m going to be here next year,” Dedich said. “I’m on my way out.”

As USC prepares to face Louisville without Williams and a host of other players, the game feels like it carries meaning, not exactly for this season, but for the next.

“I’m doing this to make sure that the tone is set for the beginning of next year,” Dedich said of his commitment to practicing and playing in the bowl game. “It is important, whether it’s recruiting or just, I don’t know, it sets the tone for the year, in my opinion.”

In many ways, Dedich represents both the exemplary recruit USC is after — someone who wants to be developed at one program — but he’s also a dying breed in the face of the transfer portal. Riley has acknowledged as much, even alluding to his recruiting strategy somewhat changing to prioritizing players who “want to be here.”

“The guy that wavers on signing day is going to waver when something doesn’t go his way here. He’s going to waver when he’s not the starter as a true freshman coming right out,” Riley said. “He’s going to waver when somebody on the outside tells him he should look somewhere else. The guys that don’t waver and have a passion for being here, they’re going to hang in there through the ups and downs, they’re going to develop, and then you’re going to look up and down the line they’re going to turn into really good players.”

Riley has remained adamant that he expects USC to taper off its dependence on the portal, opting instead for building its foundation on high school recruiting. But while USC might hope to be headed in that direction eventually, its reality is also clear. With Nelson’s departure, the Trojans will now likely have to dip into the portal for not just one, but two quarterbacks — an older one and a younger one given USC’s next big-time QB recruit is five-star Julian Lewis in the Class of 2026.

“Who we take as that young quarterback is an important decision for this program,” said Riley, who has coached three Heisman winners at the position. “You got to get the right one because the person that takes this could be in a pretty unique position pretty quick, a very advantageous position, very quick.”

Both Riley and Lynn have reiterated their goal to get the “right players” to USC, but in college football as presently constituted, NIL is an inextricable part of that equation. While Riley has praised the growth of USC’s official NIL partner House of Victory, other donors remain split on the NIL strategy. USC, notably, has five different NIL collectives, and there is a feeling among some people involved that a lack of unified force has financially weakened the program’s overall NIL potential.

“We’ve all got to continue to invest in this. We’ve all got to continue to support it,” Riley said while adding they do look for players who are not overly fixated on NIL. “It is a huge piece of this. And certainly, you’re not going to be a national-championship-level program without it.”

It doesn’t take much to see that USC needs plenty to return to playoff conversations, even with a 12-team format next year, let alone national title conversations. And as it finds itself in a spot where it is trying to look ahead while dealing with repercussions of the past, a bowl game win would be far from the cure, but it wouldn’t be a bad start. Even with the 2024 season over eight months away, there’s something to be said for setting the tone by not ending the season the same way last year ended.

Despite the up-and-down nature of the seasons, Riley has remained steadfast that the sole purpose of his hire wasn’t to win a game, a season or even a conference championship. The lofty goals he declared from Day 1 are still there. But for a program that lost five of its past six games (its sole win coming by a single point) and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2017, the turnaround has to start somewhere, even if it is small. A reset might be exactly what USC needs for its long-term success, but in the short term, it’ll have plenty to prove and far more to improve.

“The goal in terms of what we’re building is that one thing,” Riley said last week. “And that’s winning the whole thing.”

In some ways, the first two seasons with Williams were a prelude to the turnaround Riley is actually having to engineer while the college football landscape continues to shape-shift. Now, after experiencing polar opposite seasons in terms of results, the real work begins.

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