The USC Trojans' 2021 football season was a complete and total waste. It's really rare that you hear a journalist say this about a team because there's always something to be gained. The players usually get experience, coaching, or something that helps them going forward. This year, USC got none of that. Athletic director Mike Bohn mysteriously decided to appoint cornerbacks coach Donte Williams the title of interim head coach after firing Clay Helton for reasons that nobody can fathom. The players looked like they were learning less and less each week, and the coaching staff looked less and less interested as the season wore on.
Normally, you might point to adversity and say that USC will learn something from it, but it's really hard to justify that. Never mind the new staff coming in will completely turn the page and change the narrative, which is all that truly matters at the end of the day. With that in mind, let's examine some of the rare highlights from a 4-8 season.
Offensive MVP: Drake London, WR
In a season devoid of much to cheer about, London was a revelation for USC. He will easily be one of the best receivers in the NFL draft, should he choose to come out this year. He went down with an ACL injury on Oct. 30 yet still posted 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns on 88 receptions. Despite the serious injury, London has already announced he's forgoing his senior year and will enter the 2022 NFL Draft.
Defensive MVP: Kana'i Mauga, LB
The USC defense certainly had a lot to do in 2021 and few were as active as Mauga at linebacker. With 92 tackles on the year, Mauga had 32 more tackles than the next most productive player, fellow linebacker Ralen Goforth. In fact, Mauga's solo tackles alone (56) are almost more than Goforth's total (60). Mauga also added in a sack, two passes defended, and an interception.
Best Freshman: Jaxson Dart, QB
If you'd told me Dart would end up being the best freshman in a year where Korey Foreman would enroll early and Kedon Slovis would be the starter, I would have told you that you were lying. But Foreman, the No. 2 overall recruit in the nation, was pretty much non-existent in 2021, and Dart was thrust into action amid Slovis' woes and injuries. Dart posted 1,353 passing yards passing and nine touchdowns on 117 completions, with another 43 yards and two scores on the ground. This kid is going to be a blast to watch in Riley's offense next year.
Best Performance (Player): Keaontay Ingram vs. Arizona
In a year with tons of bad performances, Ingram definitely had one of the best performances. Ingram posted 204 yards and a touchdown on 27 rushes against Arizona. His longest run that day was 46 yards. Ingram is a really interesting player, and one can't help but wonder what this team would have looked like with a competent coach.
Best Performance (Team): Washington State
The USC Trojans looked like they might actually have found their guy when they went to Dart after falling behind 14-0 with Slovis injured and the offense going nowhere against Wazzu. One Jaxson Dart later, USC throttled the Cougars 45-14, making everyone forget they were trailing by two touchdowns at any point in that game. Dart posted 391 passing yards and 32 rushing yards, and Drake London added 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns. It looked like USC might actually have turned the corner after this game.
Defining Moment: Lincoln Riley's hiring
It's unfair to the team, but let's be honest here: The only thing anybody is going to remember about this year is that it was the year USC hired Riley after years and years of futility. Right or wrong, hiring a prolific coach will eventually overshadow anything that occurred throughout the year.
Biggest Surprise: Lincoln Riley
When it comes to USC, you expect tremendous athletes. But nobody expected USC to hire Riley. In fact, the move was so unexpected that it even caught OU and Riley off guard. The world assumed USC would be after Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, what with USC AD Mike Bohn having hired him at Cincinnati and him reaching the College Football Playoff with the Bearcats a year after going undefeated in the regular season and barely losing to Georgia in the last second of a New Year's Six Bowl. If you'd told USC fans they were going to end the year with USC hiring Riley, nobody would have believed you. Nobody.
Biggest Disappointment: The hiring of Donte Williams as interim
USC hiring Donte Williams did not help the players out in any way. The team looked lost most days and struggled to compete at a level you'd expect from players wearing the Cardinal and Gold. Why USC promoted him remains a mystery, but it most likely had to do with the recruiting class he had helped bring in the year prior. In fact, the move was so disappointing that USC isn't even going to retain Williams in any capacity.
Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Vavae Malepeai, RB
Vavae Malepeai was such a wonderful asset to USC's backfield. He was a tough and physical runner who also had the capabilities of turning on the jets. He was a leader in the locker room and he never let USC down. Malepeai will go down in Trojan history as one of the toughest and hardest runners USC had ever recruited. He's one hell of a player, and it wouldn't be shocked to find out he sticks to an NFL roster and has a lengthy career. His senior year didn't go the way he wanted, but he stuck it out and never considered leaving even with everything happening around him.
Player to Watch in 2021: Jaxson Dart, QB
We've already covered what Dart did this year in terms of stats and stepping in for an injured Slovis. Now we get to imagine him under Riley's tutelage with the benefit of top-notch play-calling and scheming. USC has its coach of the future, and even though they've recruited and landed the second-best quarterback in next year's class — only Arch Manning is ahead of Malachi Nelson, and not by much — Dart is going to have at least a year in Riley's system to make a name for himself and to throw his hat into the ring for starting quarterback going forward. One thing is for sure, we've seen the last of static and immobile USC quarterbacks.
Offseason Storyline: Let Riley build and create
For the first time in over a decade, USC has a coach who will command the living room when he enters. Not only do players see Riley's potential as a play-caller, but they can also commit to USC knowing that he's there for the foreseeable future. And while the NFL always looms large, Riley seems to really enjoy the college game. His name has never really been attached to anything in the NFL, and it's likely he will be at USC for at least 3-5 years, so now it's time for USC to grow and build around their coach of the future. Success might not come immediately, but it's really hard to picture this USC team having a repeat of 2020 under the stewardship of Riley, but that's why they play the game.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.