Lincoln Riley says his first USC team should be his weakest

Don’t let his demure demeanor fool you. Lincoln Riley is bold. He tells you he’s going to kick you and he explains how he’s going to do it.

Riley showed up here talking about a big game, but with his first season as USC coach nearly over, he’s convinced even the most cynical observer that he’s not just full of hot air from the Oklahoma plains.

He said he expected to fight for championships this year, and he did, with the Trojans battling for a place in the semifinals of the college football playoffs until losing to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.

He predicted the Trojans would again be a player recruiting in the west and they introduced a recruiting class in the early signing phase that included the #1 player in California in quarterback Malachi Nelson and the #1 player in Nevada in receiver Zachariah belonged to Ast.

Now, as the Trojans geared up to play Tulane at the Cotton Bowl, Riley made another brazen statement.

“I’ll be disappointed if this isn’t the worst team we’ve had here in our entire tenure,” Riley said.

He may have just been voicing the expectations of the USC fanbase, but consider how unusual that is in these times when quotes of this nature are forever stashed on the internet and could later be armed against their sources.

Riley may not be Muhammad Ali, but he’s certainly closer to Ali than UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who, prior to this season, refused to even define what a successful year would be for his team.

The Trojans have won 11 games. They are ranked third in the nation. You have a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Caleb Williams who could one day be the first overall pick in the NFL draft.

And here Riley said of these Trojans: “This is so low level of what this program can be.”

Riley wanted to make the point at his early signing day press conference at Heritage Hall. He presented the concept without being asked. He brought up the idea again later in the press conference, again without prompting.

Instead of celebrating a potential top 10 class, Riley was already speaking to his next batch of potential recruits.

“You better jump up,” he said, “or come see us.”

No wonder Nelson, Branch and receiver Makai Lemon all chose USC before Riley coached his first game with the Trojans. And no wonder Riley claims the team’s success has increased the number of high-profile players considering USC.

While Riley said he expects his future teams to be more talented, he said he wants them to keep the spirit of this year’s Trojans.

Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson waits to take the field before a game against Newport Harbor.

Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson waits to take the field before a game against Newport Harbor High School September 30 in Newport Beach. Nelson signed with USC on Wednesday during the early signing phase.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

“If we look back 10 years from now, in some ways maybe this will be one of the less talented teams that we’re going to have,” Riley said. “But in terms of chemistry, having the dressing room right, the kind of vibe and culture around that team, these guys have been outstanding. That was our ace up our sleeve. That’s what separated us and gave us a chance to win a lot of games and have a pretty cool run here in Year 1. That’s something we’ve been working hard on here for the first 12 months. We’re not going to fucking let that fade away as we build the roster and raise the talent level.

The Trojans signed 19 high school players Wednesday, 12 more than the day of the early signing last year.

The team has relied heavily on the transfer portal to create its roster this year and while Arizona receiver Dorian Singer is expected to lead another class of transfers, Riley said he prefers to center his program around four-year-old players build up.

Riley said that over time he and his staff have gained a better understanding of the types of players who are more likely to succeed at USC.

“This is not a college environment in a small town,” he said. “It’s a big market. There are bright lights on you every day. There are big opportunities, on and off the field, and you have to find people who are willing to deal with that and I think it takes a unique person to do that.

The implication was that Riley was now recruiting from a position of power, that he could pick the players he wanted, rather than settle for players who wanted to enter USC.

When asked if he thought USC lost players based on name, image and likeness considerations, Riley replied, “Yes. Of course we did. But everyone did it.”

He didn’t seem to care.

“We’re looking for people whose priorities align with USC’s priorities, and USC’s priorities will be put the team first,” he said. “First of all, it will be about the university and the training. NIL will be a part of that here and a tremendous opportunity, but it will never be number one on the priority list.”

Riley can speak that way with a degree of credibility because of what his team has accomplished on the field. He backed up his speech. But if he is to maintain his easygoing confidence, his future teams must live up to the high standards he has set for them. Lincoln Riley says his first USC team should be his weakest

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