football | March 07, 2023
Los Angeles, California. — The pieces are finally in place for Lincoln Riley as USC’s head football coach.
“I feel like it was our first real offseason with a full team and nice people like we want,” Riley said Tuesday (March 7) after the Trojans’ second practice session at their spring 2023 camp.
Around this time last year, Riley and company were just beginning to put together the concrete for what they would eventually lay in 2022 for a new era of USC football.
“I think in a way maybe everyone felt like a new guy last year, both staff and player,” mused Riley.
Now entering its second year, the USC football program has kicked off its spring camp from a more “traditional” starting point. Players, coaches and supervisors not only know their roles, but have a whole season of experience in them.
The contrast between Riley’s inaugural camp as USC head coach and his second spring camp, which began this Sunday, can hardly be exaggerated. The comparison is so stark for Riley that when asked on Tuesday, he was initially unable to name the biggest difference.
“Everything… everything,” Riley repeated with an incredulous smile.
“I think you feel like we’re building on something now, rather than just starting something,” Riley continued. “There’s a frame, right? A foundation, and now it’s time to really build. And I think our boys feel that.”
Parts of the framework that Riley had to tear down and rebuild from the ground up upon his arrival were USC’s nutrition, strength and conditioning programs. Both are tenets of a successful football programme, but both programs need time to produce lasting results.
Benny Wylie, the team’s acclaimed Director of Football Performance, inherited a squad in January 2022 that was in need of transformation. It was a process that was just beginning to unfold when the Trojans started their first spring camp.
Rachel Suba, the Trojans’ sports nutrition director, joined the program last summer and is in her first spring camp as a Trojan. Riley highlighted Suba’s work on Tuesday, describing the nutritionist as an “underrated” segment of USC staff and “elite” in her craft. Your employees have made “huge” improvements in less than a year.
“The wins are there,” Riley said of USC’s offseason progress. “That’s why you have to invest in these things because it makes a big difference.
Now that the major improvements of the last year are coming to fruition, Riley and his staff have their eyes on what’s next on the agenda: defending USC.
“We have a very clear plan for how we want to play defensively,” Riley said on Tuesday. “We expect to be an extremely high level defense here at USC. There’s no reason on earth why we can’t and why we won’t be. And we expect that [it] will happen and will happen soon.”
Part of that plan includes adding nine new defensemen to USC’s roster this spring, four of whom came through the NCAA transfer portal. Riley, who has relied heavily on the transfer portal for the past season, seems once again drawn to the character of the latest Trojan.
“How they’ve dealt with the off-season, how they’re acting, wanting to fit into that culture, wanting to win a championship, like the team-first mantra here — these guys have fitted in very, very well,” Riley said.
Mason Cobb, an inside linebacker originally from Oklahoma State, seems to have found his step quickly. Riley likened his arrival to that of an inside linebacker Shane Lee last season, who found a leadership role early on.
“Cobb comes to mind as a guy who’s starting to assert himself in that way,” Riley explained Tuesday.
USC’s mission to improve its defense is also aided by the fact that its defensemen now have one season of experience under the defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and its scheme.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we can ask our people more where they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Riley said. “Sometimes last year we asked her to do things and we got a crazy ‘deer in the headlights’ look. Not so much of it now. And we had a nice corps of executives who really helped push it with.”
Although the Trojans started this year’s spring camp from a much more ideal vantage point, it’s just one piece of the puzzle in USC’s national championship quest.
“What was acceptable 12 months ago isn’t necessarily acceptable now,” Riley explained. “As we raise the standard of this program, it will happen in everything we do. So we’re a lot further along, certainly in every way than last year. But the standard is also higher. So we kept pushing them and I’m proud of how they’ve responded up to this point.”
centre-back Eric Gentry the entire camp will be absent as he underwent surgery earlier this winter.
The sophomore injured his ankle during the Week 7 USC match and “never got back to 100 percent,” according to Riley.
The head coach noted that “mental repetition” will be very beneficial for Gentry, who kickstarted his move to USC last June.
Incoming freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson has so far taken part in the practice in December despite shoulder surgery.
Nelson’s first pitching session since surgery came during Sunday’s spring training session. “It’s like a golfer going to a tournament for three months without practicing or hitting a ball,” Riley said.
Riley doesn’t expect “too many restrictions” on Nelson this spring as the quarterback “should be able to do most” of USC’s practice drills.
USC’s defenders have added more weight this offseason in a bid to “bring more pop physically,” according to Riley.
Linebacker’s competition is “very evident” just two days into spring camp.
“This is going to be very fun to watch,” Riley said.
The head coach also noted that USC’s defense will need “extreme production” from their linebackers in 2023.