Seismic shifts are nothing new in Southern California, but few would have predicted that the ultimate landscape-altering move came not via Richter scale nor Hollywood production, but courtesy of USC's announcement that Lincoln Riley was taking over as the Trojans' head coach. It's rare that one can stun the college football world, but it's safe to say that an overnight poaching of the 38-year-old architect of three playoff appearances, a pair of Heismans and multiple NFL quarterbacks — at fellow blueblood Oklahoma, no less — qualifies.
Amid renewed optimism in Los Angeles, however, comes the tall task of reigniting a down-on-its-luck program that once mesmerized the sport. Riley understands that the expectations are to win immediately, return prestige to the flagship West Coast power and get Troy competitive again on the national stage. A nearly unprecedented roster revamp was undertaken to help hit those goals sooner rather than later, bringing in a swath of high-profile transfers to supplement the usual complement of four- and five-stars from the high school ranks.
How it melds together over the course of 2022 figures to be worthy of interest far beyond the reaches of L.A., with no shortage of storylines surrounding a program capable of landing pretty much anywhere in the standings.
Previewing USC's Offense for 2022
Caleb Williams' guiding principle during a month-long sojourn into the transfer portal was to sort out which school would best put the electric quarterback in position to become a No. 1 overall pick. That he reunited with his old coach wasn't shocking, but is perhaps telling for a signal-caller who earned Freshman All-America honors and bumped a preseason Heisman favorite to the bench. Although Williams will have a new supporting cast, lofty expectations aren't misplaced for somebody who could be the best in the Pac-12 already.
As much attention as QBs get in Riley's version of the Air Raid, it's an offense that's predicated on an effective ground game. That's music to the ears of two intra-conference transfers expected to carry the load — Oregon's Travis Dye (fifth on the Ducks' career rushing list) and Stanford's Austin Jones (4.2 ypc). Both are threats in the passing game, too, but will need to stay upright for a full season. Junior Darwin Barlow and four-star recruit Raleek Brown figure to earn playing time.
Depth is less of an issue at receiver — thanks again to the transfer portal. Jordan Addison - '21 Biletnikoff Award winner - opted to transfer from Pitt to USC in May, giving the Trojans a clear No. 1 option on the outside. Mario Williams was Oklahoma's second-leading pass-catcher and has natural chemistry with the quarterback. Brenden Rice, son of NFL legend Jerry, should double the production he had at Colorado. Terrell Bynum arrives after making 19 starts for Washington. Gary Bryant Jr. and Tahj Washington are the Trojans' lone returning starters across the skill positions.
The offensive line should also be something to build around, with Virginia transfer tackle Bobby Haskins supplementing a group that includes an All Pac-12-caliber guard in Andrew Vorhees and four-year starting center Brett Neilon.
Previewing USC's Defense for 2022
New coordinator Alex Grinch is no stranger to turnarounds, having been handed the defensive keys by Ohio State and Oklahoma based on taking Washington State to the top half in just about every statistical category from 2015-17. He has his work cut out for him to fix a defense that allowed 31.8 points per game. Luckily, the cupboard isn't bare.
Up front, junior Tuli Tuipulotu is set for an even bigger role after first-team All-Pac-12 honors while leading the team in sacks and forced fumbles. He'll play opposite high-motor senior Nick Figueroa and Brandon Pili inside. Kansas State transfer Tyrone Taleni and TCU's Earl Barquet Jr. could also challenge for starting gigs.
Behind them is a group filled with intrigue. Former No. 1 recruit Korey Foreman didn't quite have the impact expected in his first season (2.5 sacks) and will have competition coming off the edge from Auburn transfer Romello Height. Returning starter Ralen Goforth will have to fight off younger competition to remain with a first unit that should feature a 13-game starter from Alabama in Shane Lee and freshman All-American Eric Gentry from Arizona State.
The secondary is not immune to turnover but has two building blocks in safeties Xavion Alford (team-leading three INTs) and Calen Bullock. The latter was named a Freshman All-American in 2021 and will benefit from the return of nickel back Max Williams from a knee injury. Transfers Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado) and Latrell McCutchin (Oklahoma) will get first crack at the two corner spots but will be pushed for playing time by five-star freshman Domani Jackson and youngsters Prophet Brown and Ceyair Wright.
Previewing USC's Specialists for 2022
USC will feature a revamped special teams unit for 2022, right down to a new long snapper. Kickoff specialist Alex Stadthaus will add field-goal duties to his plate, while Australian freshman Atticus Bertrams handles punts.
The arrival of Riley is poised to be transformational for USC long term — a clear sign of ambition to return to the sport's elite. As lofty as such goals are, though, it's hard to forget that the Trojans were 4–8 and experienced a roster turnover greater than any in college football. Even with a new-coach bounce, a prolific quarterback, a likely first-team All-American and gamebreaker at receiver, and a manageable schedule, the 2022 team has just enough question marks to signal that this season is more likely to lay the foundation for the Riley era than it is to truly realize a return to glory.
National Ranking: 9
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