You could call the 2021 USC football season a total bust, but to do so would ignore the fact that the absolute travesty of a campaign helped bring about the most positive thing to happen to the program in more than 20 years. After hiring Pete Carroll almost 21 years ago to the day — December 15 vs. November 28 — USC sent seismic shockwaves throughout the college football landscape with the hire of Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Simply put, the Trojans got the best man available for the job, and with Riley comes equally seismic expectations.
Those expectations begin this spring with USC not only going through a coaching and schematic change, but also a roster that has basically completely turned over. Riley and his staff hit the transfer portal hard, adding quarterback Caleb Williams, running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones, and wide receiver Mario Williams, to name a few. At least the QB-WR combo has some familiarity since they are both former Sooners.
These Trojans are going to look different, act different, and play different, with the expectation that they will return to the forefront of the national title conversation. To do this, the first step is getting everyone on the same page and the first opportunity comes with spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During USC's Spring Practice
1. Quarterback change
Talk about a completely different outlook at quarterback. Kedon Slovis had visions of leading USC to a turnaround and becoming the next big name from the program to play in the NFL. Instead, he will look for a fresh start at Pittsburgh, remembered in Trojans lore as a wonderful freshman player but somebody who never fully developed and ultimately failed to meet expectations as a Trojan quarterback. But that was the past. The present is Caleb Williams, one of the top dual-threat signal-callers in the country.
Williams knows what Lincoln Riley expects, and he has plenty of familiarity with the playbook. Even with a head start, Williams is going to need to build chemistry with his new receivers (Mario Williams being the exception), finding out how each one reacts, how they run routes, and where they prefer the ball to be thrown. This shouldn't be too difficult, but that doesn't mean there won't be a learning curve either. So getting every rep you can in spring is only going to help prepare everyone for when the games count in the fall.
2. Offensive line overhaul
USC's offensive line never established any sort of foundation for greatness under former head coach Clay Helton. While Riley wasn't able to convince Oklahoma's Bill Bedenbaugh, the best offensive line coach in the nation, to come with him to USC, he was able to hire Josh Henson away from Missouri. Henson is someone I said USC should take a look at several years ago.
Henson benefits from Caleb Williams being a dual-threat quarterback as USC attempts to get its offensive line up to snuff. The Trojans brought in a few players via the transfer portal and 2022 recruiting class to address these needs, but the biggest plus right now is adding Henson to the staff. Helton had miss after miss after miss with this spot on his coaching staff while Riley had Bedenbaugh at Oklahoma. For all Riley has accomplished, the one thing we don't know is how he'll fare without the offensive line guru working alongside him. He's hoping Henson can become his new, and successful, tag-team partner.
3. Harrell no more
One of the biggest additions by subtraction is the absence of former offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. If there's one guy I am glad I won't see anymore, it's Harrell. Talk about an offense that put up a thousand miles to nowhere. Now, USC gets the benefit of having the nation's best play-caller run the show, something Trojan fans have sorely missed. Spring will give everyone their first look at how the Riley-led offense may look, not to mention all the new talent he has brought with him to Los Angeles.
4. Alex Grinch's time to shine
Coordinator Todd Orlando's defense didn't quite have the second year the team was hoping for, and now he's gone along with Helton. Replacing him Grinch, who has plenty of experience in the Pac-12 from his time at Washington State under Mike Leach. That in and of itself is a huge boon for USC. Grinch can hit the ground recruiting, and he knows the teams and some of the coaches. While not everything is the same since the last time he was here, he's going to be familiar with a few people, and any time you can enter a season with a leg up, it's only going to help you.
Grinch has a lot he's going to have to look at and make decisions about. I wouldn't be shocked if he used spring to try out everything and anything with his players. It can't hurt to know what they can do and can't do and when better to test that out than spring. Grinch is a well-respected defensive coordinator, and while some Oklahoma fans were unhappy with him and weren't upset to see him go, state legislators also mockingly considered naming three inches of highway after Riley following his departure when he did nothing but bring glory to Oklahoma, so I'd say to take anything they say with a grain of salt. But they already poured a crapload of salt on nearly everything they've said about USC, so maybe just disregard it entirely.
5. It's so wonderful to have hope for the future again
The Trojans no doubt had some success under Helton, but his reign will be remembered as a guy who was kept for way too long and never really learned to be anything other than a player's coach. While Riley also is a player's coach, he cares about winning and expectations. They weren't just words, they were actions. Riley brings with him an incredible list of accolades, and if USC even posts half of what Oklahoma did during his short time there, the Trojans are going to be back to pissing everyone in the country off with their Arrogant Nation approach to life and college football. It's going to be glorious.
Podcast: Spring QB Battles, How NIL Collectives Will Impact CFB and Big Magazine News from Athlon Sports
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.