USC coach Lincoln Riley: ‘We’re excited about where we’re headed defensively…’
Ryan Kartje (LA Times) — When Lincoln Riley stepped onto the practice field this past Sunday at the start of his second spring as USC’s football coach, the task in front of him felt a bit less daunting than it did a year ago.
The foundation of the program was already formed, the core beliefs already ingrained, the processes put into place. There were fewer questions to answer, fewer details to address.
“You have a sense that we’re building upon something now as opposed to just starting something,” Riley said Tuesday. “Now it’s time to really build. And I think our guys sense that. I think there’s certainly a lot less new, but at the same time, we’ve pushed the guys to understand that what was acceptable 12 months ago is not necessarily acceptable now.”
Nowhere is that more true for USC at the start of spring than on defense, where one need only travel back two months to understand what unacceptable looks like.
USC’s disastrous defeat in the Cotton Bowl in January certainly raised plenty of questions about the direction of its defense and the future of coordinator Alex Grinch. Though Grinch was retained, the rest of that underperforming defense is already looking plenty different.
Seven incoming transfers and freshmen along the defensive front. Five more added to the secondary. And more sure to come in the summer.
“What the answer was at times last year won’t necessarily be the same answer this year,” Riley said when asked about the defense. “Those things are going to evolve and change, especially as these rosters fluctuate. But we’ve really been able to take a very good look at these guys, two days in, and I’ll say this. We’re excited about where we’re headed defensively.”
Reporters and fans won’t get an extended look at the defense until USC’s spring game April 15. But Riley offered some idea of where it stands Tuesday. He pointed to strength and weight gains in the secondary, which he felt wasn’t physical enough last season, and reiterated there will be several new starters along the defensive front.
Riley said there’s finally some depth at linebacker. Oklahoma State transfer Mason Cobb has made an especially strong early impression, emerging as a vocal leader in the locker room much like senior Shane Lee did last spring.
“We’re really excited about some of the talent we brought and some of the talent that’s been on this roster that’s been developed,” Riley said. “We expect to be an extremely high-level defense here at USC. No reason in the world why we can’t and why we won’t be. And we expect that that will happen and happen soon.”
It hasn’t been an ideal start at USC for five-star freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson, who underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in late December, days before coming to campus.
That plan was coordinated with USC. But it didn’t leave much time for Nelson to get his arm acclimated for spring. He didn’t start throwing fully until Sunday, the first day of USC’s spring practices.
“For a QB, that’s like a golfer going out and playing a tournament without practicing or hitting balls for three months,” Riley said. “He’s done well the first few days. He makes some plays where you see his ability, and certainly there’s plenty of mistakes. Every single play, we’ve got something to learn from. But he seems to take it and grasp it quick.”
Nelson should have plenty of time to find his footing from here. With the defending Heisman winner ahead of him on the depth chart, there’s no need to rush Nelson’s development. Even behind Caleb Williams, USC already has a capable backup in Miller Moss.
Having those experienced passers around Nelson, Riley said, “has been a big plus.”
The freshman still isn’t cleared for full contact, but quarterbacks don’t take contact during spring, anyway. Beyond that, Riley said there are “not too many limitations” with Nelson.
“We’ll have to be careful with him in team settings,” Riley said, “but we’ll be able to do most of the things, which is obviously key for his development.”
USC hoped that some rest and rehab might be enough for inside linebacker Eric Gentry’s injured ankle to fully recover. But as the weeks passed this offseason, that progress never quite materialized.
Eventually, Gentry opted for ankle surgery. The procedure will keep him out for the rest of spring.
“He’ll be back very, very quickly after,” the coach said. “And probably would’ve missed spring ball regardless of when he had the surgery.”
College football recruiting rankings: Which Power 5 schools have the most potential? Eight members of The Athletic’s college football staff — Sam Khan Jr., Mitch Light, Antonio Morales, Manny Navarro, Max Olson, Grace Raynor, Andy Staples and Ari Wasserman — submitted their own rankings of the Power 5 programs, Nos. 1 through 69, based on recruiting potential. 1 GA 2 ALA 3 OHIO ST 4 LSU 5 TEXAS ï»¿6 USC is the most high-profile program in one of the most fertile recruiting regions in the country. When a good coach (like Lincoln Riley) is in charge, USC recruits well, and it has… Read more »
LR on the USC D: “We’re at a point where we can ask more of our guys where they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. At times last year, we asked them to do things and we got kind of a crazy, ‘deer in the headlights’ look. Not as much of that now. And we’ve had a nice corps of leaders who have really helped push it along. “What was acceptable 12 months ago is not necessarily acceptable now. If we’re going to raise the standard of this program, it’s going to happen in everything that we… Read more »
There is no doubt the defense turned into a sieve the last 4 games. How we beat UCLA and ND is a miracle. However, make no mistake and don’t forget, the last 5 minutes of the Cotton Bowl was a total, top to bottom, TEAM melt down. Special teams, offense and defense, head coach on down. What and who cracked there that caused the dam to crumble?
I had almost forgotten how USC just folded like a cheap tent in all aspects to hand the bowl game to the Green Wave. It’s hard to believe USC was winning 45-30 with 4:30 to go. It was a despicable defeat for the ages and I doubt the entire state of Oklahoma has ever been so deliriously overjoyed at one time. I’m sure Lincoln Riley has never coached so poorly at the end of any game in his life. If that Cotton Bowl fiasco doesn’t at least in part fuel USC’s fire heading into the 2023 season, every player needs… Read more »
The O did not fold; it played it conservative its last scoring drive. It ate clock and took a FG. Turned out, it needed to score a TD, but that is hindsight. The D failed to hold (duh) and then we had a special teams disaster when Mario Williams fumbled the kickoff out at the 2. There LR messed up on his calls. He ran the zone read, when Caleb could not run. In hindsight, he should have run a spread. Personally, I think if Mario had not made that mistake, SC would have won the game, getting the ball… Read more »
You and I disagree a lot on this RJJ. USC’s offense was nailed for a slow-developing run/safety with 3:20 to go. I call that “folding” big-time, both in terms of the dumb play call as well as execution. It was one of the worst calls in the clutch I have ever seen. Austin Jones, just an average, relatively slow back at best, didn’t even get back to within two yds of the goal line. Talk about getting stuffed. He got swarmed and turned around as soon as he got the ball. USC’s upfront blocking was non-existent and confused on the… Read more »
The melt down on O I was referring to was that last possession from the 2 that ended with a safety. Ugly.
Mario Williams catching the kickoff at the 1 yard line killed us. If he lets that go, we get the ball at 35 yard line and probably drive and score and up the lead.
And the bad call leading to the safety. It still sickens me that we lost that game THAT way. If Caleb doesn’t get injured in the P12 title game, we would have been in the playoff for sure. And then that debacle. We left a lot of opportunity on the table, and I am looking forward to progress in the “finish” category this coming season. Not complaining overall, though — we are ahead of schedule under LR!
Sure would like to know what LR thinks of this current team behind closed doors, and especially how it compares to his other better teams.
No special teams coach. Really?! MW acted like he had never even practiced fielding a big kick in his life. Even a Pop Warner player would shy away from dangerously fielding an awkward high kick on the one right next to the sideline in that treacherous circumstance. Plain old sloppy, uncoached special teams football, and it led directly to the loss. USC folded like a cheap tent across the board and threw away a sure-fire Cotton Bowl win. After watching this devastating end of the CB after all this time, I’m strangely comforted by the fact that USC just did… Read more »
Watching the video is worse than reliving a broken leg. For me the kick return after the field goal was the beginning of the collapse. There was a man in position to stop the returner, but he went in too high without any leverage. He got spun around and allowed at least 20 extra yards. Then lack of tackles were obvious. The defensive backfield was slower than an old lady with a prosthetic leg using a rusty walker. Maybe Tulane had fresher legs, but missed assignments (or incorrect placement) put the defense at a disadvantage. If Mario Williams had caught… Read more »
So true. USC’s horrible tackling was on full display during that return.
USC was acting and playing like it had already won and was ready for the showers. Two plays later, TUL is in the end zone, practically walk-in style.
Frankly, this was the worst collapse I have ever witnessed in Trojan football. If there is another, please correct me. But I think this last late disintegration was worse than losing the Rose Bowl/NC to Vince Young, though the stakes were nothing in comparison.
I can’t agree with that at all – the Vince Young Rose Bowl was and still is the most painful moment in USC football during my lifetime. This past Cotton Bowl collapse is not even in the same atmosphere as that. I’m sorry, but in this playoff era, the non-playoff bowls don’t mean much more than the first few non-conference games. Nobody cares all that much about those wins/losses. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely frustrated by the way we collapsed and left with a disgusting taste in my mouth as I reached for the remote to turn that… Read more »
Agreed, which is why I said, “the stakes were nothing in comparison.”
Some would argue that USC’s loss to TEXAS in that Rose Bowl was the greatest loss in the history of college football. Kind of a fun topic!
I wouldn’t agree with “some,” although I think that was Texas’s greatest win.
Sorry – I misinterpreted, thinking you were saying the Tulane thing was worse than the Texas thing! What was the greatest win? For me, it was probably beating ND in the Bush Push game that same season!
Ya, the 2005 Bush Push event was probably as exciting as anything I’ve ever witnessed about Trojan football. And that’s saying so much. Hurting ND the way we did in South Bend on that Oct. 15 day was a true Trojan Day to remember.
In terms of how I felt at the time, the worst loss ever was the ’65 UCLA game. In terms of how I feel looking back at the game, the worst loss ever was the Texas Rose Bowl. Maybe it’s just the difference between being a college freshman and being 40 years older than that. I left the Coliseum in ’65 crushed; it was the worst thing I had ever experienced. But although I left the Rose Bowl after the Texas loss bitterly disappointed, I felt like I had witnessed an epic event and I still had the ’03 and… Read more »
I know for me that losses hurt more when I was younger, one of the silver linings of getting older, for me at least.
It is hard to believe the defense cannot get better. With the additions of new players, a hard look into the defense by the HC, and hopefully a healthy season how could they be as bad as last year. I know we are in the season of hype, and it is running rampant, the proof will come out in September.
The defense better get better because this coming schedule is a lot tougher than last season. The defense may get better but the W & L s may not be as good. Hope the finish to this season is better than the last.