A complete restart: Will Lincoln Riley’s overhaul of USC pay off?
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LIKE MANY STORIED FOOTBALL programs, USC attempts to overwhelm you with its history once you step on campus. Plaques filled with names of previous great players line the walkway toward the practice field named after former head coach Howard Jones alongside donor Brian Kennedy. Before every practice, players walk up an ascendant tunnel and through an arch with Greek lettering, touching a sword erected as a “symbol of conquest and victory,” and through the gate named after Marv Goux — a former captain and assistant coach from the late 1950s to the 1980s.
Over the last decade, it has felt like the program has had no choice but to hang on to the glory days, teams and players of the past. Through the struggles and even some of the successes (see: the 2017 Rose Bowl), USC has clung to that history. So much so, in some cases, that it’s led to leadership decisions that have backfired: Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Clay Helton, Pat Haden, Lynn Swann. And so on.
Lincoln Riley now jogs through that same path they all once did on his way to practice. And even though his message since he arrived in Los Angeles has referenced that history and legacy plenty, it doesn’t take much time to see that he is a deviation from the norm.
“I feel like the biggest difference is Coach,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees, who has been at USC since 2017, said. “The paradigm shift that he’s brought to our culture in our program, that has really stood out to me.”
If the changes to the culture have been clear from the start, the changes on the field, especially under Riley’s offense, have been even more stark.
“It’s kind of like, you go to a different country and you have to drive on the left side of the road,” Vorhees said.
As USC’s most anticipated season in some time approaches, Riley’s arrival now poses a new outlook for a USC team that needed not just a refresh, but a complete restart. The ensuing tidal wave of change that has followed since the surprising hire has resulted in not just a complete shift in leadership, but an influx of over 40 new players to create what Riley is calling one of the most unique rosters ever in college football.
“We’ve worked our ass off in the last four and a half months to build a culture and to build a standard within our program to offer to them,” Riley said after the spring game. “The [amount of new players] isn’t going to be a crutch for us. We know it’s a competitive advantage for us to grow together as a team.”
The program’s new direction has brought as much excitement as it has immediate expectations. With kickoff less than a week away, Riley’s debut season will not just be about getting started on the right foot, it will also be about how quickly the changes he’s instituted can reap results.
IT TOOK ONE SEASON, a 1,350-mile move from Norman to California and a brand new crop of receivers, for 19-year-old Caleb Williams to become the old man in the room.
“Even though I’m still a sophomore, I’m that old guy compared to everybody,” Williams told ESPN. “Playing in [Riley’s] offense, especially as a freshman, you have to really dig deep into the playbook and know it.”
Williams’ familiarity with Riley’s system turned him into players’ personal 411 operator when he first got on campus. Everybody was asking him questions.
If Williams has been the training wheels for this USC offense, then fall camp was an exercise in taking them off. Over the past few months, there have been fewer questions, but Williams — who Riley says has become even more in lockstep with him and his system in Year 2– still wants to fill in the role of being a second coach on the field. So much so that receivers say he’s often mocking routes for them and telling them exactly where he wants them to be on a given route, play or moment.
The receivers, for their part, have found themselves needing to catch up with the learning curve as quickly as possible. For Tahj Washington, that meant an increase in something that’s very natural to him: Taking notes.
When Washington arrived at USC, he was one of only a handful of players who would take notes during film, or even on his own time off the playbook. This past offseason, Washington’s teammates have joined in.
“I write down everything,” Washington said.
Beyond his propensity for note-taking — he’s gone through more than one notebook already — there’s an appeal in learning because of the opportunities it presents.
A 5-foot-11, 175-pound wideout with plenty of speed and agility, Washington is exactly the kind of player who might benefit the most from Riley’s revolution. In previous versions of USC’s offense, he was used in a two-dimensional way.
“We actually get to show our skills in this offense,” Washington said.
Between the addition of Jordan Addison from Pittsburgh and Brenden Rice from Colorado, the competition that has come from those additions and the fact that Williams will be throwing to them, USC’s wide receiver group (as well as its tight ends) is perhaps the most energized under this new regime.
“Every night, I’m looking at my notes I take in the meetings,” tight end Malcolm Epps said. “I’m trying to really grasp an understanding of how the game works with this playbook and how it can affect defenses. It’s really it’s really complex playbook, but you can see how it’s very effective.”
Travis Dye saw the potential right away. After a three-hour conversation with Riley, the Oregon running back who had entered the transfer portal in January, was sold.
“I knew right away I wanted to get coached by him,” Dye said of the conversation. “I need to know more. I need to know what he’s thinking.”
Though Riley is now synonymous with an air-raid style offense, his units are often at their best when they have a reliable running back, setting the tone for Dye, who was an anchor for Oregon last year and should fit into that role with ease.
Seeing the offense that Riley projected to Dye has him ready to start the season.
“We’re hitting on all cylinders right now,” Dye said. “The tempo is so much better and we’re just, it’s just bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, right down the field. That’s how it should be.”
WHETHER IT’S STRETCHING DRILLS at the beginning of practice or sprints at the end of practice, you can almost always count on Alex Grinch’s voice to stand out. The defensive coordinator who followed Riley to USC from Oklahoma is trying to replicate, in his own words, 85,000 fans going bonkers in the stands.
“We’re trying to create an intense environment,” Grinch said after a recent practice. “That’s why I don’t have a voice.”
Theatrics aside, if there is one thing USC’s defense has lacked in previous years, it is just that: intensity. Last season, the Trojans defense ranked 106th in defensive SP , but the final SP preseason projections for 2022 has them at 65.
“From a mental standpoint, when a team or defense appears to be lacking that physicality or intensity, there’s some hesitation on their part about what they’re doing,” outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “The first thing is making sure guys know what to do. And then we give them examples every day, not just practice, film, tons of NFL film, other college film. We try to give them visual examples. This is what I want, this is what we want, this is what we need and praise that behavior.”
Because of the personnel turnover and the timeline leading up to kickoff, the approach on defense has been broader, focusing on establishing standards of physicality and communication rather than getting too in the weeds with schemes.
“As far as a scheme, [Grinch is] not trying to give us too much to think about,” said linebacker Shane Lee, who transferred from Alabama. “He just wants our absolute, all-out effort and he wants us to play together and communicate.”
Through fall camp, two defensive cornerstones have emerged: The role of leader on defense has fit Lee like a glove, and everyone has been singing the praises of lineman Tuli Tuipulotu, who is primed for a breakout year. Tuipulotu has excelled not just playing his own position, but in three different spots when other players have been injured and he’s had to fill in.
The questions on the defense will linger well into the season, however. Part of that is simply the fact that it is a new scheme, under a new coach, with several new players. Another part of it is injuries.
Freshman phenom Domani Jackson has been out with an undisclosed injury, and though Riley said it should be a short-term situation, there’s no timetable on his return. Standout sophomore edge rusher Korey Foreman just returned to practice in mid-August after missing most of fall camp with an undisclosed injury. Depth in Foreman’s position isn’t robust, so the time he’s spent away could impact the defense’s overall performance.
“I’m concerned. We’re not getting those two weeks back,” Grinch said of the fall camp time Foreman has missed.
There’s a clear realization that the margin of error is far slimmer when it comes to the defense, so even if USC’s offense lives up to its star-studded hype, the team’s success this season will hinge on its defense. It’s why Riley himself, who spends most of the time on offense, said he can’t wait to get on the same sideline as the defense and see what they do.
WHEN THERE ARE OVER 40 new players, an entirely new coaching staff and immediate expectations, the little things do, in fact, matter. Even the little things, as Riley would tell you, that he didn’t expect to matter.
“You first think LA and like guys are in a big city, but the reality is our guys live closer to each other than any other school I’ve ever coached at,” Riley said. “There’s very few guys that I can’t walk to where they live from our office and I think, though it’s been a cool advantage that I wouldn’t have anticipated.”
Aside from the fact that Riley feels the proximity helps build chemistry, players have talked about the fact that the sheer amount of new players from new places has put everyone on alert; developing chemistry off the field right away goes hand-in-hand with developing that cohesion on the field.
“I don’t think we lacked the players and the personalities within the locker room to have good leadership. I just think there wasn’t a forum that fostered leadership,” Vorhees said of the past few years at USC. “[Riley and the other coaches] have come in and given us a playbook on how to do that and a structure within that.”
Riley has said that he and his staff feel a sense of responsibility in creating environments to instill a sense of familiarity within the roster, like team and position dinners, beach days and even a recent trip into Hollywood.
Players have taken on this task themselves, too.
“For me I picked up golfing and started going with some of the guys on the team to play or to the range,” Lee told ESPN. “Basically, whatever you’re doing, bring some of the guys along.”
So far, that strategy seems to be working.
“It’s not easy, but there’s something different about this team,” Dye said. “We’ve glued together so much. Like it was so much quicker and so much better than any other group I’ve ever been a part of.”
Riley agrees. Yet he is the first to caution about the ideal circumstances of this positivity.
“I think those relationships and that trust and all that is just gonna get strained in a different way here in about 10 days,” Riley said. “Games are a different animal and you find out how tight it really is, and you have to really bond together because we’ll be tested and it’ll be tougher than anything we’ve had to do.”
Year 1 under Riley will be an experiment in more than just chemistry. Despite the easier schedule and the state of the Pac-12 as a whole, every aspect of a one-year turnaround will be tested. As Riley and everyone around the program knows, the results will speak for themselves. And given the kind of lead-up this team has had to its first game, one thing is certain: Whether it’s wins or losses, those results will not happen quietly.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.