Questions ahead of USC’s first fall camp under Lincoln Riley

When Lincoln Riley took charge of a USC program in dire need of rebuilding, no one expected a new foundation to be laid overnight. However, when Riley was asked in November how quickly he could flip the Trojans, he didn’t try to lower expectations.

“In this day and age, I think it can happen quickly, I do,” Riley said.

Nine months — and 20 transfers — later, USC enters camp as one of the most fascinating roster experiments in college football, a team almost entirely rebuilt through the transfer portal. Essentially ripped down to the cleats, the Trojans return this season with a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, a new backfield, two new potential All-American receivers, a new left tackle, a new corps of linebackers and a handful new faces back in secondary school.

What Riley has already built over the course of a single off-season will serve as an early case study for program building in the age of the transfer portal. Can a team that is completely unraveled be completely transformed overnight? We’ll know soon enough.

With USC opening its first Riley-era training camp on Friday, many other pressing questions need to be answered first:

What can we expect from quarterback Caleb Williams and new top receiver Jordan Addison?

USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up during the spring game at the Coliseum April 23.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

They grew up in the Washington, DC area just an hour apart, but Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison didn’t know each other well until last spring when Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff Prize winner, suddenly became available on the transfer portal. and Williams, USC’s new quarterback, turned his attention to recruiting college football’s reigning top receiver.

“I was in his ear,” Williams said last week. “I think I texted you [linebacker] Shane [Lee]. I said, ‘Text that kid a message.’ I think it was 15 of my teammates that I had Jordan write. Like folks, ‘We’re going to need him to win some big games.’ Jordan was that important. So important are all these guys that I’ve tried to support and that come here to play with me.

Wide receiver Jordan Addison runs with the ball in the second half against Syracuse.

Wide receiver Jordan Addison runs with the ball against Syracuse in the second half on November 27, 2021 in Syracuse, NY.

(Adrian Kraus/Associated Press)

Perhaps none is more crucial than Addison, who brings a deep threat to USC’s offense unlike any other in college football. Addison had 10 touchdowns from 20+ yards last season in Pittsburgh. At USC, his teammates are already amazed at his speed.

“He’s running like 23 mph, which is crazy,” Williams said. “He can do almost anything.”

We don’t yet know how Riley intends to use it. But for the Trojans, it’s been a long time since a quarterback-receiver connection looked so promising.

How much have new transfers helped the defence?

There’s no question USC will be loaded on offense, with a Heisman contender as quarterback and a bevy of new weapons all around. Remember that in seven seasons as a coordinator and coach at Oklahoma, Riley has never finished outside the top 8 when it comes to offense, and it’s easy to imagine the Trojans scoring big in many ways this fall .

The crippling uncertainty is instead reserved for the other side of the ball, where it’s unclear what to expect. The Trojans have been a pathetic mess on defense in recent years, but the unit that struggled to stop anyone last season has had a complete overhaul. Twelve of USC’s 20 transfers and five of its seven newcomers come to the defensive side, many of which are expected to have immediate roles.

That turnover makes predicting USC’s defensive capability this season an inaccurate science. We have no idea how all of these new parts will fit into new coordinator Alex Grinch’s scheme. Or whether these new pieces were even suitable for defense.

But on paper there are reasons for optimism. For one, USC added a slew of talent where it was arguably weakest — at the linebacker, starting with Lee, whose rise as locker room leader has been notable. He’s joined by Arizona State’s Eric Gentry, a freshman All-American, former Utah signee Carson Tabaracci, and Auburn transfer Romello Height in linebacker space that doesn’t look the same anymore like a year ago.

The same can be said for USC’s secondary school, which could see up to four new starters.

“We expect to have a national championship defense here at USC,” Riley said. “I think we have the people for it.”

Who will be the Trojans’ top pass rusher?

USC defenseman Korey Foreman lines up for a game.

USC defenseman Korey Foreman goes into action for a second-half game against Washington State on September 18, 2021 in Pullman, Washington.

(Young Kwak/Associated Press)

Former top recruit Korey Foreman was set to step straight into the role of the fearsome pass rusher as a true freshman. This sublime vision never quite materialized. And after a disappointing debut season, it’s hard to know what the future holds for Foreman.

At the moment it doesn’t appear that a launch roll is part of this image. Foreman sat out the spring with an injury, allowing Height to top him on the depth chart and step into the role of starting edge rusher seamlessly.

It is unclear whether he will hold the place in the training camp. But after hearing coaches and players rave about Heights’ performance in the spring, there’s no reason to believe he’s out of touch with the role.

Of course, Foreman still has plenty of time to find out. During the spring, he reiterated several times how “blessed” he was to have a fresh start with a rebuilt USC defense.

No one in this unit needed a fresh start more than Foreman, and arguably no one on USC’s defensive front has more talent. Whether one unlocks the other this season is another question entirely.

How does Bobby Haskins’ healthy return shake up the offensive line?

Offensive tackle Bobby Haskins points to a coach.

Offensive tackle Bobby Haskins (70) points to a coach during the second half against BYU on October 30, 2021 in Provo, Utah.

(George Frey/Associated Press)

It was expected that he would be one of USC’s most significant portal entries. But an ankle injury kept new transfer lineman Bobby Haskins out of Spring Ball, delaying his debut and adding intrigue to a brewing offensive-line battle.

Understand this: Haskins wasn’t hired as a graduate transfer to sit on the bench. Now that he’s healthy, he’s expected to intervene immediately in the left tackle, where he’s started 20 games for Virginia. The real question is who could he supplant in the process.

Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim were USC’s starting tackle for much of last season and both will be fighting for starts against Haskins. If Ford wins the job, Monheim could potentially step up to right guard, where Justin Dedich started most of the spring.

As a redshirt senior, Dedich dutifully waited his turn and played the role of swing lineman for several seasons. Could his chance finally come in his fifth season at USC?

How involved will USC’s top freshmen be this fall?

With so many new players, their peers didn’t get quite the same bill as they usually do in the first year leading up to fall. But there are a few newcomers who might be household names by the end of camp.

The most obvious is Domani Jackson, the state’s top nominee for the Class of 2022. USC’s high school is a wide-open competition, and Jackson has what it takes to make an immediate impact. While Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon is sure to snag a corner seat, the other is up for grabs. It’s rare for a newcomer to jump right in at cornerback, but Jackson is in thin air as an athlete.

His Santa Ana Mater Dei High teammate Raleek Brown could make a similar splash on the other side of the ball. A true all-purpose threat, capable of catching passes from the backfield, Brown won’t start out in a traditional running back role as a freshman. Rather, he is used as a runner or receiver as Riley sees fit.

It may take a while for this role to crystallize. Once that’s the case, Brown may very well be a season-ending stalwart on offense. Questions ahead of USC’s first fall camp under Lincoln Riley

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