When Lincoln Riley took to the practice field last Sunday at the start of his second spring as USC’s football coach, the task ahead felt a little less daunting than it had a year ago.
The foundation of the program had already been formed, the core beliefs had already been established, the processes had been put in place. There were fewer questions to answer, fewer details to tackle.
“You feel like we’re building on something now instead of just starting something,” Riley said Tuesday. “Now it’s time to really start building. And I think our guys sense that. I think there is certainly much less news, but at the same time we got the guys to understand that what was acceptable 12 months ago is not necessarily acceptable now.
Nowhere is that more true for USC at the start of spring than for Defense, where you only have to travel back two months to understand what unacceptable looks like.
USC’s disastrous defeat in the Cotton Bowl in January certainly raised a lot of questions about the direction of the defense and the future of coordinator Alex Grinch. While Grinch was kept, the rest of that underperforming defense already looks very different.
Seven inbound transfers and freshmen along the defensive front. Added five more to the secondary. And there will certainly be more in the summer.
“What the answer was sometimes last year may not necessarily be the same answer this year,” Riley said when asked about the defense. “Those things will evolve and change, especially as these schedules fluctuate. But we got a really good look at these guys, two days later, and I’ll say this. We are excited about where we are going defensively.”
Reporters and fans only get a comprehensive look at the defense USC’s spring competition 15 of April. But Riley gave an idea of where it stands on Tuesday. He pointed to strength and weight gains in secondary, which he felt were not physical enough last season, and reiterated that there will be several new starters along the defensive front.
Riley said there’s finally some depth at linebacker. New linebacker Mason Cobb has made a particularly strong early impression, emerging as a vocal leader in the locker room, much like fellow linebacker Shane Lee did last spring.
“We’re very excited about some of the talent that we’ve brought and some of the talent that’s on this roster that’s been developed,” said Riley. “We expect to be a very high level defense here at USC. No reason in the world why we can’t and why we won’t be. And we expect that to happen soon.”
It wasn’t exactly an ideal start at USC for five-star freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson, who underwent shoulder surgery in late December days before coming to campus.
That plan has been coordinated with the USC. But there wasn’t much time for Nelson to acclimate his arm for spring. He didn’t start throwing fully until Sunday, the first day of USC’s spring practices.
“For a QB, that’s like a golfer playing a tournament for three months without practicing or hitting balls,” Riley said. “He did well in the first few days. He makes some plays where you can see his ability, and there are certainly plenty of mistakes. Every play we have something to learn from. But he seems to accept it and understand it quickly .
Nelson should have plenty of time to make his way from here. With the defending Heisman winner ahead of him on the depth chart, there’s no need to rush Nelson’s development. Even behind Caleb Williams, USC already has a capable backup in house Miller Moss.
Having those experienced passers-by around Nelson, Riley said, “was a big plus.”
The freshman still isn’t cleared for full contact, but quarterbacks aren’t contacting in the spring anyway. Aside from that, Riley said there are “not too many restrictions” with Nelson at the moment.
“We’ll have to be careful with him as a team,” Riley said, “but we’ll be able to do most things, which is obviously essential for his development.”
USC hoped that some rest and rehabilitation would be enough to allow Eric Gentry’s injured ankle to fully recover. But as the weeks went by this off-season, that progress never quite materialized.
In the end, Gentry opted for ankle surgery. The procedure will keep him out for the rest of the spring.
“He will be back very, very soon after that,” said the coach. “And probably would have missed the spring ball regardless of when he had the surgery.”