USC is one of the most intriguing teams for the 2022 college football season. The Trojans hit a home run by hiring Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma and later bolstered the roster through the transfer portal with key additions like former Sooner quarterback Caleb Williams. USC hasn't played up to its potential and roster talent in recent years, and with question marks on both sides of the ball, Riley likely needs a transition season to get the program positioned for a run at the CFB Playoff in '23. While the top four might be out of reach this year, if the pieces fall into place for Riley, a run to the Pac-12 title is certainly a reasonable goal.
How quickly can Riley address concerns on both sides of the ball and get USC back into contention in '22?
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, add through the transfer portal, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Riley to address in 2022:
USC Football: 5 Priorities for New Coach Lincoln Riley in 2022
1. Get the Transfers and New Scheme Meshed on Offense
Combine Riley’s track record with a talented cast of transfers and returning players at USC, and it’s easy to see why this offense should be significantly improved after a lackluster ’21 season. The Trojans averaged only 5.91 yards per play and 28.7 points a game in last year’s 4-8 campaign. A repeat of that would be a major surprise.
Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams is among the nation’s top quarterbacks, and his familiarity with Riley’s scheme will make for an easy transition out West. Fellow transfers Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford) are poised to team with freshman Raleek Brown and Darwin Barlow to power the ground game. Three transfers – Terrell Bynum (Washington), Brenden Rice (Colorado) and Mario Williams (Oklahoma) – add to a receiving corps featuring holdovers Gary Bryant (44 catches in ’21), Tahj Washington (54) and Kyle Ford (19).
How fast can Riley get all of the transfers, incoming freshmen and returning upperclassmen all on the same page with the new scheme?
2. Continued Development Up Front
After giving up 15 sacks in six games in the Pac-12’s abbreviated 2020 season, the Trojans allowed just 18 over 12 contests in ’21. Also, the offense posted its highest yards-per-carry mark in four years (4.4). Although both numbers were a good sign for an offensive line that entered ’21 with concerns, Riley and line coach Josh Henson still have significant work to do here. In addition to fitting the linemen into the new scheme, USC loses two players who contributed more than 1,000 snaps in Liam Jimmons (863) and Jalen McKenzie (517) last fall. The good news: Center Brett Neilon and guard/tackle Andrew Vorhees – both honorable mention All-Pac-12 selections last season – are set to return for ’22. Jonah Monheim, Justin Dedich and Courtland Ford are also back after making starts last year. The addition of Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins is another boost for this group.
Figuring out exactly how the pieces fit into place, along with building off some positives from ’21, top the list of priorities for Henson and Riley this spring.
3. Rebuild the Defensive Line
The development of USC’s defense is likely to determine just how high this team climbs in the national rankings in 2022. An extensive amount of work will be focused on the trenches after the Trojans allowed 175.4 rushing yards a game in Pac-12 matchups and generated just 21 sacks in 12 contests. As a team, USC allowed 31.8 points a game, with six out of their final seven opponents scoring 31 points or more.
The cupboard isn’t totally bare here, especially with end (and former five-star recruit) Korey Foreman poised to take a step forward in his development. After registering 2.5 sacks in 11 games, the Trojans need more out of the talented sophomore in ’22. Nick Figueroa joins Foreman as a key contributor off the edge, while Tuli Tuipulotu anchors the interior after a first-team All-Pac-12 season last year. Transfers Tyrone Taleni (Kansas State) and Earl Barquet (TCU) will join a returning Brandon Pili from injury to bolster the interior.
USC has to get tougher up front, which includes stopping the run, playing with more physicality, and finding more ways to get to the quarterback. Although the front-line pieces are solid, more depth, talent and production are needed. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Trojans dip into the portal again here for help.
4. …and Linebacker Unit
Improving the play up front isn’t solely on the defensive line under new coordinator Alex Grinch. If USC can patch a few holes and improve the overall play at linebacker, that will go a long ways to helping the rush defense and how the unit can generate a pass rush. The Trojans started three linebackers in most ’21 contests, but standout edge rusher Drake Jackson and Kana'i Mauga (91 stops) have departed. Grinch ran a 3-4 with hybrid variations at Oklahoma, so the shift from Todd Orlando’s scheme won’t require a massive personnel change.
Ralen Goforth (62) is likely to man one starting spot, while Alabama transfer Shane Lee could claim the other job on the interior. Auburn transfer Romello Height (three TFL with the Tigers in ’21) could provide some help off the edge. This is also a big season for former four-star prospects Julien Simon and Raesjon Davis.
5…and the Secondary
Grinch and defensive backs coach Donte Williams have a lot of work to do. The Trojans finished 119th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on 65.3 percent of their throws. Adding to efforts to clean up last year’s performance is attrition. Cornerbacks Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart and nickel Greg Johnson are off to the next level, while safety Chase Williams entered the portal.
The news isn’t all bad here for the new staff. Safety Calen Bullock is a rising star and could be joined in the lineup by Xavion Alford (31 tackles) or Jaylin Smith (11). Max Williams also returns after missing all of ’21 due to injury. The outlook at cornerback also features some promise with former top prospects Ceyair Wright and Prophet Brown primed for bigger roles after a redshirt year. Also, five-star recruit Domani Jackson should push for snaps right away, with Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado) and Latrell McCutchin (Oklahoma) arriving as transfers.
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