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Lincoln Riley’s USC Reclamation Project Will Require Patience

A quiet early signing day should remind Trojans fans that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But that doesn’t mean Riley’s plan to return USC to prominence is off course.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Historians posit that it took 800-plus years to build the ancient Roman Empire to its peak, but USC is attempting to challenge that saying. The Trojans’ hiring of coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma last month was the most shocking move in what is unquestionably the wildest coaching carousel in college football history, and USC has grand plans of returning to the top of college football as quickly as possible.

Riley’s hiring is the most consequential recent move for college football because of its timing. Riley’s Los Angeles arrival coincides with momentum taking off for name, image, and likeness rights for players, a free agency–like transfer portal, and a looming massive conference realignment.

USC offered the head coach a program with a rich foundation that is positioned to thrive in the new age of college football. “I always had that sense [of USC’s resources] through all the years,” Riley said Friday, speaking with reporters after confirming his early signing day class. “And certainly, that was a factor in ultimately taking this job and feeling like you can build one of the elite rosters in the country here. I would say—now having been here for a few weeks—it’s still very early, [but] you feel that sense.”

The Trojans’ acquisition of Riley was so simultaneously stealthy and thunderous that it felt like they transformed into a college football power overnight. But, as Riley’s early signing day indicated, jump-starting USC likely won’t be instant. In speaking with a handful of figures within the Southern California recruiting landscape ahead of Wednesday’s signing day, the keys to Riley succeeding at USC are evident, even if the next few years present uncharted territory for the sport of college football.

Two weeks before USC hired Riley, he was in Southern California recruiting. CIF playoffs were underway, and powerhouse St. John Bosco High School was facing Los Alamitos, featuring three (now former) Oklahoma commits. Bosco coach Jason Negro recalled chatting with Riley, who’d recruited a handful of Bosco players to play for him in Norman, Oklahoma, over the years, during the visit.

“It was funny,” Negro recalled, “because we actually discussed USC, and he asked me, ‘Hey, man. What do you think’s wrong at USC?’ And so I gave him my opinion. Little did I know that he would be there a couple weeks later.”

Shortly after getting hired, Riley flipped two Los Alamitos players (2023 five-star QB Malachi Nelson and 2023 five-star WR Makai Lemon) from Oklahoma to USC. But the Trojans didn’t make much noise after that. USC wrapped up the December signing period with seven commits pledged to its 2022 class, a group that currently ranks 70th overall and ninth in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports.

Riley said that he and his staff huddled together during the two weeks between his hiring and the early signing date, and they had to decide whether to “go and sign 20 guys” because of the high amount of interest in playing for the Trojans.

“We said in the beginning what our priorities are going to be for creating a championship roster here,” Riley said. “And we said we’re not going to stray from that, even though it’s tempting. I mean, it’s tempting to want to come up here today and have 20 names on this list. But we know in the end, that’s not how you build a championship roster. It’s about getting the right names.”

USC’s 2021 Early Signing Day Class

Name Rating School
Name Rating School
Domani Jackson, CB 5 stars Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA)
Raleek Brown, RB 5 stars Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA)
Zion Branch, S 4 stars Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, NV)
Fabian Ross, CB 4 stars Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, NV)
Devan Thompkins, Edge 3 stars Edison (Stockton, CA)
Garrison Madden, LB 3 stars Dutchtown (Hampton, CA)
Atticus Bertrams, P 2 stars Australia (ProKick Australia)

Riley preached a methodical approach to building the Trojans into a national contender, including his aim to overhaul the roster by potentially adding 35 players. The transfer portal, which has already seen an intriguing number of entrants, is in play for USC; former TCU defensive lineman Earl Barquet committed to the Trojans on December 13. “I would say that we’re open for business on all accounts,” Riley said.

That patient approach didn’t stop USC from at least flashing its might on the recruiting trail last week. In addition to poaching Riley’s Oklahoma-committed trio, the Trojans beat Alabama to five-star cornerback Domani Jackson, 247Sports’ top-rated 2022 recruit in California. Jackson is one of three California-based early signings to join Riley’s initial USC class, which shows an increased emphasis on better establishing the Trojans locally.

“Obviously, we’re going to sign players from all over,” Riley said. “But the majority of players that we are going to sign are certainly going to be from this part of the country. And I still feel that, deep down, the majority of players around here, they want to play at USC.”

In five seasons as Oklahoma’s head coach, Riley’s staffs landed eight total signings—high school or junior college-level prospects—who were based in California. That accounts for 7 percent of the 115 total signings during Riley’s tenure in Norman.

Lincoln Riley’s California Recruits at Oklahoma

Name, Position (Year) Rating, In-State Position Rank School
Name, Position (Year) Rating, In-State Position Rank School
Addison Gumbs, DE (2017) 4 stars, no. 15 HS player in CA Stellar Prep (Hayward, CA)
Grant Calcaterra, TE (2017) 4 stars, no. 25 HS player in CA Santa Margarita Catholic (Rancho Santa Margarita, CA)
*Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, WR (2017) 4 stars, no. 3 JUCO player in CA College of the Canyons (Valencia, CA)
*Dillon Faamatau, DT (2017) 3 stars, no. 5 JUCO player in CA Cerritos College (Norwalk, CA)
Jeremiah Criddell, S (2019) 4 stars, no. 22 HS player in CA Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA)
*Rhamondre Stevenson, RB (2019) 3 stars, no. 5 JUCO player in CA Cerritos College (Norwalk, CA)
Jonathan Perkins, OLB (2019) 3 stars, no. 72 HS player in CA Cajon (San Bernardino, CA)
*Justin Harrington, S (2020) 4 stars, no. 1 JUCO player in CA Bakersfield College (Bakersfield, CA)
*Indicates player enrolled at JUCO school in California

“I’ve had a relationship with [Riley] since he was at Oklahoma,” Negro said. “He would always make it a point to stop by our school and talk about our athletes. I think he does an incredible job of recruiting. It’s gonna take him some time to kind of get his foothold and to kind of recruit some of the younger kids.”

Through the heart of the past decade, the Trojans have not consistently retained premier in-state talent. Their 2019 and 2020 classes—ranked 20th and 63rd nationally, respectively—marked the height of futility for the program, by-products of a 13-12 stretch across two years that saw USC finish both seasons unranked. Those signing classes notably featured only four of 247Sports’s top-25 California recruits.

“I’ve recruited this state for a long time,” Riley said. “We’ve been able to have a little bit of success recruiting at some of the previous stops. But I always remember a sense of this not just this state, but this part of the country, that when SC was good, they were gonna be tough to beat. And when SC wasn’t good, you were maybe gonna have a chance to sign kids that deep down really wanted to go to SC.”

Prior to his ouster, Clay Helton did manage to buck the trend with his final class, securing pledges from nine of California’s top 25 prospects. Much of that work can be attributed to Donte Williams, then-USC’s cornerbacks coach, who’s credited with landing 10 of the Trojans’ 2021 commits. Williams, considered one of the top recruiters in the country, was named interim coach after Helton’s firing earlier this season, and Riley is expected to retain him on staff.

“I think [retaining Williams] is pivotal,” said Alec Simpson, California scouting director of Catapult, a wearable sports technology company that works with every FBS team. “I think you have to keep him there. Donte is a terrific recruiter. There’s no better recruiter than Donte Williams in the Pac-12 right now. Donte does a great job of relating to the kids, relating to the community, and developing defensive backs. … That’s what needs to ultimately be accomplished here in the new era of USC football recruiting: keep the best home and [let recruits] know what it means to play here.”

Williams’s return, Simpson explained, is significant because of the groundwork he’s already done with local recruits in the 2024 and 2025 classes. 247Sports rated Williams as the top recruiter in the Pac-12 this cycle, and his familiarity and understanding of the area allowed the Trojans to assert themselves despite a tumultuous campaign. The Trojans hope that in-state star recruits will again consider USC as their first option.

“I do think a lot more of the Southern California kids that were leaving home and and going to places like maybe Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama—I think a lot of those guys are definitely going to give Lincoln and USC a much harder look now than they were in previous years,” Biggins told me.

The college football landscape is strongly defined by California prospects leading out-of-state programs. Just look at the list of California high school quarterbacks who left the state for college: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei, Ole Miss’s Matt Corral, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. And while the 2022 class’s top in-state passers Maalik Murphy and Katin Houser have signed with Texas and Michigan State, respectively, Riley securing Nelson’s commitment for 2023 is a strong start for USC becoming a QB factory just like Riley had at Oklahoma.

Still, while quarterbacks could be set to thrive under Riley’s tutelage, there’s valid concern as to whether there’s enough local offensive line talent. Throughout Riley’s Sooners tenure, he churned out NFL-caliber offensive line talents, including center Creed Humphrey and offensive tackles Bobby Evans, Cody Ford and Orlando Brown Jr. Over that same span, USC has produced linemen such as Alijah Vera-Tucker, Austin Jackson and Zach Banner, but only Vera-Tucker was recruited from a local high school.

“You just don’t see the big guys that are talented anymore,” Biggins said. “Maybe one or two, but that’s it. Other parts in the country, you go in the South and there’s, like, 20 guys that are as good as our no. 1 guy out here. So it’s just a different level. So he’s going to have to still recruit nationally.”

That shouldn’t be an issue. Between 2017 and 2021, Oklahoma ranked outside the top 10 of 247Sports’ team composite rankings only once (13th in 2020). Riley always found ways to convince top recruits to join him in Norman and secured three College Football Playoff appearances and four consecutive Big 12 championships. USC hasn’t made the playoff yet and has won only one Pac-12 title in 13 years (2017). Sure, you can joke about Riley jumping ship as Oklahoma prepares to join much stiffer competition in the SEC to lead what’s deemed the top job in a much weaker Pac-12. But the decision was prudent; USC provides Riley the clearest path toward a national title.

Perhaps the most important component to Riley’s move is that it occurs at a time when player empowerment—both financially and in terms of movement—is rapidly growing, in part thanks to NIL rights. Unlike some of his fellow well-paid coaching peers, Riley has not publicly ripped athletes for their decision-making in wielding monetary influence or transferring to a new school. He rejected the notion that NIL poses “challenges” along the recruiting trail, instead referring to it as an opportunity, specifically for USC, to utilize its resources.

“The possibilities for NIL, for all of our student athletes here, are endless,” Riley said. “We’re just scratching the surface of what this is getting ready to be. And again, you kind of look at this job and this opportunity here at USC, and what you project—not only where it’s at now or maybe the history, but also look into the future of what it can be. I have a hard time imagining a university, a football program that could be in better position than us to capitalize off that.”

On its surface, the Trojans’ early signing day haul might not suggest USC is a giant waking from its slumber. But with Riley in tow, it likely won’t be much longer before few programs are able to stand in their way.

“Riley’s probably has the highest profile coach—and the best reputation of being a winner—of any guy they’ve had since Pete [Carroll], probably,” Biggins said. “So I’m fascinated to see how it all plays out.”