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College Football Preview 2022: 13. USC Trojans

Gary Bryant Jr., USC

13. USC Trojans

It's only a matter of time before Lincoln Riley restores the program to greatness, but there will be growing pains in Year One

2021 Review
For years, Clay Helton was a regular fixture on hot seat head coaches lists and USC finally decided to move on in early 2021 following a two-touchdown loss to Stanford. It wasn't surprising that the Trojans finally moved on from Helton, but the timing was interesting. Doing so just two weeks into the season essentially assured that 2021 was a lost campaign and unsurprisingly, USC had a rough go of it the rest of the way. Interim head coach Donte Williams battled injuries and apathy as the Trojans sunk to the bottom of the Pac-12, winning just two games over the final three months of the fall. It was clear the once-proud program needed a serious jolt of life, and they got just that when AD Mike Bohn secured Lincoln Riley as their next head coach. Riley was ultra-successful during his time as Oklahoma head coach and has the type of personality that fits the Los Angeles culture, which wasn't the case with Helton. His big-time additions in the transfer portal over the offseason has electrified the program and created plenty of hype heading into 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Riley made quite the early impression with Trojans fans by managing to lure sophomore superstar Caleb Williams away from Oklahoma and to Los Angeles. Williams became an immediate sensation in the world of college football by guiding OU to a come-from-behind win in the Red River Showdown and finished with 1,912 yards and 21 touchdowns. He made some freshman mistakes down the stretch in 2021, but may be the most hyped quarterback USC has had since Matt Leinart and playing in an offense that has produced not one, but multiple Heisman Trophy winners.

Williams immediately comes in and becomes the focal point of the Trojan offense, but he shouldn't overshadow the other offensive talent Riley and staff managed to bring in as well. A pair of veteran tailbacks from Pac-12 rivals should come in and revamp a rush offense that was mediocre at best a season ago.

Oregon transfer Travis Dye was fifth on the school's all-time rushing list before deciding to start anew in Los Angeles and provides a proven, workhorse tailback for this offense. He'll likely be the team's feature back, but Stanford transfer Austin Jones and holdover Darwin Barlow should also be key pieces on the ground. Jones was a three-year contributor for the Cardinal whose numbers were down in 2021, but still found a way to make an impact. Barlow is their top returning rusher, notching 289 yards on 62 carries last fall.

USC loses their best receiver, first-rounder Drake London, and yet may still have the nation's best receiver corps. A trio of returnees, Tahj Washington, Gary Bryant Jr., and Kyle Ford provided enough fuel to the offense a season ago, but it's all the additions that have USC fans foaming at the mouth. The biggest one is unquestionably Jordan Addison, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner. Fans and media members have raised concerns about the nature of Addison's transfer and what it means in the NIL era, but that doesn't change the fact that he was the best receiver in college football last year and now plays in an offense called by the best offensive mind in the sport. 

Addison's arrival was a major storyline this offseason, but the more significant news story may be the addition of three other former Power Five transfers. Mario Williams was the first Oklahoma Sooner to follow Riley to the West Coast and may be the fastest player in college football. He'll spread defenses thin with all the different ways he can contribute to an offense, while Washington's Terrell Bynum and Colorado's Brenden Rice also arrive. Rice is the son of NFL legend Jerry, and put up solid numbers with the Buffaloes despite having some questionable quarterbacks getting him the ball.

The skill position talent on the roster is staggering, but the secret sauce to Oklahoma's offensive success all those years was their offensive line. Riley was unable to convince his OL coach, Bill Bedenbaugh, to follow him to 'SC, but still managed to land a big name in Josh Henson, who comes from Texas A&M.

Riley and Henson have four returning starters at their disposal and they also managed to land an instant-impact transfer (surprise, surprise!) in Bobby Haskins from Virginia. Haskins is likely to start right away at left tackle, but the anchor of the group will be senior guard Andrew Vorhees.

USC's skill position talent is pretty much just a college football all-star team, built primarily through the transfer portal. They're going to need time to gel and Williams is still a young QB who hasn't even played a full season of FBS ball, but it's difficult to imagine this group not being one of the best offenses in college football. There may be difficulties early on as they figure things out, but I shudder to think what opposing defenses are going to have to face down the stretch this fall.

Defense: As good as the offense looks on paper, the key to USC's success this season will hinge on the defense. It's a group that has struggled for years now, including 2021, when they ranked second-to-last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and 103rd nationally.

Riley brought his defensive coordinator with him in Alex Grinch, a name that's been fast rising in the coaching ranks for some time now. Grinch did a fine job with the Sooners, but wasn't able to engineer a true Top 25 unit, which becomes his goal in Los Angeles.

The defensive front is loaded with talent, but didn't play with any edge in 2021. Junior end Tuli Tuipulotu is a big-time returnee, coming off a year in which he led the team in sacks and earned All-Conference recognition. He's joined by a pair of seniors, tackle Brandon Pili and end Nick Figueroa. Figueroa has flashed potential at multiple times during his time with the Trojans, but will have to kick it up another gear to replace NFL-bound Drake Jackson, while Pili is back and ready to go after missing all of 2021. 

There's plenty of new faces at the linebacker position, a group that didn't play very well last season. The most significant addition is yet another Pac-12 transplant, Eric Gentry, who comes from Arizona State. Gentry was a Freshman All-American for the Sun Devils last year and should start right away at one of the two inside linebacker spots. The other starting spot inside is either going to be veteran Ralen Goforth or former Alabama transfer Shane Lee. Goforth was second on the team in tackles a year ago and has been in the program for several years, but the new staff may prefer Lee, who is the more talented of the pair.

Both outside linebacker spots are unsettled, but the Trojans are hoping Auburn transfer Romello Height can provide immediate pass rushing ability off the edge. He played in just ten games during two years on The Plains, but Height looks the part and was considered a significant addition over the offseason. The other name to watch here is Korey Foreman, who could play defensive end or outside linebacker. Formerly the top recruit in the country, Foreman had some moments in 2021, but didn't provide the sort of immediate impact many had hoped. There's no guaranteed playing time with a new staff in place, but Foreman is way too talented not to be making a larger impact on this defense.

The secondary is unsettled and could be a concern heading into the regular season, but USC is hopeful that safeties Calen Bullock and Xavion Alford provide enough of a core to lead the group. Alford is a former Texas transfer who led the team in interceptions a season ago and could get even better, while Bullock is a former Freshman All-American. Depth is a bit of a concern behind them, but the 1-2 combo at safety might be the strength of the defense.

Cornerback is the primary concern, with Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart moving on. Once again, it's up to a cast of newcomers to lead this position, as the Trojans will lean heavily on Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon, Oklahoma transfer Latrell McCutchin, and true freshman Domani Jackson. Blackmon is a good bet to start with his experience in this league and McCutchin's previous expertise in this defensive scheme gives him an advantage. But, it's going to be hard to keep Jackson off the field, a five-star prospect who was one of the top-ranked players in the entire country coming out of California powerhouse Mater Dei. Jackson may not be 100 percent after missing most of his senior year due to injury, but he's a good bet to see immediate playing time from a small recruiting class.

It's difficult to get a read on this defense as a new era begins. There's so many new faces and while there's talent, I don't doubt that there will be some major ups-and-downs. The key will be how this front seven can perform, whether it's able to live up to its upside. The Trojans simply haven't been physical enough to contend with some of the big boys in the league, particularly Utah. If the front isn't up to the task this year, any chance of overtaking the Utes goes out of the window.

Special Teams: As if the offense and defense weren't mysterious enough, USC is also starting anew at kicker and punter. Alex Stadthaus went 6-6 on field goal attempts in 2021 but was primarily a kickoff specialist; he's set to take over for the departed Parker Lewis. Punter is in anybody's guess, as the Trojans will be without Ben Griffiths. The good news is that the return game should be in good hands, as 'SC returns both Gary Bryant Jr. and Tahj Washington, with the former leading the team in both kick and punt returns a year ago.

Bottom Line: Few teams have seen their fortunes shift so rapidly as USC over the past calendar year. The once-proud program was mired in mediocrity for years under Clay Helton, but has now upgraded with one of the best coaches in college football, who was subsequently loaded up through the transfer portal. However, things take time in the world of college football and imagining the Trojans to be serious CFB Playoff contenders already in Year One seems unrealistic. There's simply too many moving pieces, and the fact of the matter is, this team went 4-8 a season ago. With that being said, I don't mind predicting the Trojans to be serious Pac-12 Title contenders, considering they are the most talented team in the conference and things are pretty wide-open beyond the trio of Utah, Oregon, and UCLA. If all this talent can acclimate quickly, I'm picking USC to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but they are certainly boom-or-bust, with real potential of disappointment. Fortunately, they don't have to get past Utah to play for a Pac-12 Title, with the conference eliminating the division requirement over the offseason. That gives them an increased chance at a conference title, something they've done just once since 2008, but only adds to the chaos and uncertainty pervading the program. Picking them to land somewhere in the middle of a booming or busting seems the most fair, with 9-10 wins a very attainable goal in Year One.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
After five seasons as Oklahoma head man, Lincoln Riley makes the jump to the West Coast. It was certainly a shocking decision among the college football public, and his decision to bring in Caleb Williams earned him plenty of ire among the Sooner faithful. Yet, Riley now gets an easier path to CFB Playoff contention and will be able to recruit the most fertile recruiting area of the country, quite a selling point for the 38-year old. The offensive coordinator will be Josh Henson, who Riley snagged from Texas A&M, where he was the OL coach. Henson is an Oklahoma native who played at Oklahoma State, where he coached the O-Line from 2016-18. The defense will be led by Alex Grinch, considered a rising name in the collegiate coaching ranks. His big break came as Washington State DC from 2015-2017, as he parlayed it into a position at Ohio State. After three years full of highs and lows with Oklahoma, he's hoping for more consistency in Los Angeles.

Recruiting Breakdown
Helton's struggles on the recruiting trail were a major part of his firing, perhaps an even larger part of the reason than his lack of on-field success. Riley should be able to restore USC as a serious power player in recruiting, not just on the West Coast, but nationally. His first class is incredibly small, with just ten players, as the Trojans focused on fixing immediate needs through the portal. That doesn't mean there isn't some impressive talent coming in from this group, namely five-star Domani Jackson, the top player in the state of California. Four other high four-star prospects dot the recruiting class, including tailback Raleek Brown, defensive back Zion Branch, wide out C.J. Williams, and corner Fabian Ross. Brown followed Riley from Oklahoma, where he was originally committed, as did several members of the Class of 2023. One other name to watch is junior college transfer Cooper Lovelace, who comes from Butler C.C. in Kansas. Considering all the other names USC brought in from the transfer market, obviously Lovelace isn't going to measure up, but you can always use interior line help at this level. Lovelace may not even play during his time in 'SC, but depth up front is never a bad thing.

2022 X-Factor: Calen Bullock, S
For all the frustrations USC suffered through in 2021, one bright spot was Calen Bullock. Despite not being a very highly rated recruit, Bullock came on and made an immediate impact, playing multiple different positions in the 'SC defensive backfield. He finished with 40 tackles and two interceptions in just 11 games, earning Freshman All-American honors for his work. As one of the few returning starters from last year's defense, Bullock is now expected to take a leadership role, especially considering the secondary lost some key pieces. If he can emerge as a reliable playmaker on the back-end, the prognosis for this entire defense becomes significantly better. This defense doesn't have to elite for the Trojans to contend for a Pac-12 Title, but it must be improved; there's no reason the shaky defensive performances of the last several years should continue being the norm with so much talent here.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (8-1 Pac-12, Lose Pac-12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Caleb Williams
Defensive MVP: S Calen Bullock
Breakout Player of the Year: DL Nick Figueroa
Impact Freshman: CB Domani Jackson

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