LOS ANGELES – It is a roster makeover maybe unprecedented in college football history, in not only the numbers and the quickness but the sheer star power involved. The eight months between Lincoln Riley’s hiring at USC – itself speedy and stunning – and this past Friday’s first day of fall camp have been a whirlwind, as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch acknowledged the other day.
“It started on a plane flight (from Oklahoma to L.A.) in late November,” he said. “And you’re rippin’ and runnin’ from there, and trying to in every way, shape and form maximize your roster and your potential for the ’22 season. So that’s everything we’ve done up to this point, through that lens. And what that creates is the importance behind every single workout, every day, every meeting.
“And then it all leads up to this.”
Let’s call the process Riley’s Rapid Rebuild, and it could put some of those home improvement shows on TV to shame. Aided immensely by the transfer portal, the new Trojans staff reloaded quickly with an eye toward the marker the boss laid down shortly after he got here.
“Like I said in my opening press conference, before even one of these players had come in, you don’t come to USC and you don’t come to Los Angeles to do things small. You got to set your sights big,” Riley said at Pac-12 media day two Fridays ago.
“We came here competitively to win championships, win them now and win them for a long time. That will always be our expectation.”
The College Football Playoff championship game is in Inglewood this January. But no pressure.
The stated goal and the talent plucked from the portal to help USC get there – including freshmen All-Americans at quarterback (Caleb Williams), wide receiver (Mario Williams, both from Oklahoma) and linebacker (Eric Gentry from Arizona State), the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best receiver in Jordan Addison (from Pitt), former Pac-12 opponents in running backs Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford) and SEC archrivals Romello Height (Auburn) and Shane Lee (Alabama) on the defensive side – has to be heartening to the Trojan faithful.
After all, they’d grumbled for years, and the discontent reached critical mass as the Clay Helton era approached its end. The fear, assuredly, was that they’d have voted with their wallets if athletic director Mike Bohn hadn’t moved boldly.
Instead, the alumni are happy, former players are coming around again, and one of the loudest gripes of the fan base is being addressed. Discipline and accountability seemed to be missing in recent seasons, and Riley and his staff made it a priority to change that. “Discipline over default” is the team motto, and the coaches aren’t hesitant to back it up.
“He (Riley) has made it a big point to be accountable,” said senior offensive lineman Brett Neilon, one of the holdovers. “If you’re late for anything (or) you miss something, the team’s gotta do up-down pushups. Early on, we were doing 100, 200 pushups or situps after a workout. (By) the end of spring, we were doing like five or six.”
This wasn’t just for foul-ups on the field or in the meeting rooms, either. Academic transgressions such as cutting class and blowing off homework earned up-downs as punishment, too.
“You got guys that are doing their homework, going to every single class because they don’t want to let the team down,” Dye said.
Said Grinch: “It’s one of those moments where it’s, ‘Coach, you mean every workout (at max effort)?’ Yeah, we mean every workout. … I think by and large guys certainly are getting the gist that what we say we mean, and there’s an expectation that it’s daily, not sometimes.”
During spring ball it seemed like there were three Trojans teams – one going, one staying, one coming. The unofficial depth chart posted by the Ourlads scouting service lists nine transfers among the projected starters. Six are on offense, Williams, Williams, Addison, Dye, Brenden Rice (receiver from Colorado) and Bobby Haskins (left tackle from Virginia), along with edge rusher Height, linebacker Lee and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado) on defense.
In all, the 109-man roster listed on the USC website (including walk-ons) includes 20 NCAA transfers (plus three from community colleges) and 31 holdovers who’d had any sort of playing time in 2021’s 4-8 season.
From last year’s roster, 49 players are no longer Trojans. That includes 18 seniors (and juniors Drake London and Drake Jackson, who along with senior Keontay Ingram were picked in the NFL draft). It also includes 31 underclassmen who either decided or were persuaded they’d be better off elsewhere, including last year’s top two quarterbacks, Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart.
The stories, of course, are legendary of coaches in previous generations running off players who were no longer useful. But the particular method in which this turnstile spun was so 2022, right down to Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s grousing about tampering after losing Addison.
(Or you could look at it another way: Addison as the player to be named later after Slovis went to Pitt.)
Players have the freedom to transfer and play right away, and the potential of NIL money doesn’t need to be an overt inducement to be a powerful lure. Smart coaches make sure to note the possibilities in their markets, and Riley is a smart coach operating in not only the country’s No. 2 media market but its largest with major college football.
Money has always influenced college football on the institutional level, even more so with the latest move in the conference realignment derby – you know, the one that USC and UCLA made a little over a month ago. But the guys in uniform are now getting paid, too, as they should.
And yet …
“I’m all for the players, there’s no doubt about it,” USC running backs coach Kiel McDonald said, before adding: “I think there needs to be some sort of common ground among the conferences and the teams, you know what I mean? … I just think it’s going to be hard for maybe smaller market teams to be able to continue to survive if they’re not going to be able to extend NIL opportunities like the bigger schools would.”
Yet that’s where we are in 21st-century college football, a sport where the strongest and richest always have established their dominance. Riley’s Rapid Rebuild is just another indication that USC, with its 11 won or shared national championships, is determined to flex again.