When Lincoln Riley stepped onto the practice field this past Sunday at the start of his second spring as USC’s football coach, the task in front of him felt a bit less daunting than it did a year ago.
The foundation of the program was already formed, the core beliefs already ingrained, the processes put into place. There were fewer questions to answer, fewer details to address.
“You have a sense that we’re building upon something now as opposed to just starting something,” Riley said Tuesday. “Now it’s time to really build. And I think our guys sense that. I think there’s certainly a lot less new, but at the same time, we’ve pushed 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 on defense, where one need only travel back two months to understand what unacceptable looks like.
USC’s disastrous defeat in the Cotton Bowl in January certainly raised plenty of questions about the direction of its defense and the future of coordinator Alex Grinch. Though Grinch was retained, the rest of that underperforming defense is already looking plenty different.
Seven incoming transfers and freshmen along the defensive front. Five more added to the secondary. And more sure to come in the summer.
“What the answer was at times last year won’t necessarily be the same answer this year,” Riley said when asked about the defense. “Those things are going to evolve and change, especially as these rosters fluctuate. But we’ve really been able to take a very good look at these guys, two days in, and I’ll say this. We’re excited about where we’re headed defensively.”
Reporters and fans won’t get an extended look at the defense until USC’s spring game April 15. But Riley offered some idea of where it stands Tuesday. He pointed to strength and weight gains in the secondary, which he felt wasn’t physical enough last season, and reiterated 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 an especially strong early impression, emerging as a vocal leader in the locker room much like fellow linebacker Shane Lee did last spring.
“We’re really excited about some of the talent we brought and some of the talent that’s been on this roster that’s been developed,” Riley said. “We expect to be an extremely 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 that will happen and happen soon.”
It hasn’t exactly been an ideal start at USC for five-star freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson, who underwent surgery on his shoulder in late December, days before coming to campus.
That plan was coordinated with USC. But it didn’t leave much time for Nelson to get his arm acclimated 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 going out and playing a tournament without practicing or hitting balls for three months,” Riley said. “He’s done well the first few days. He makes some plays where you see his ability, and certainly there’s plenty of mistakes. Every single play, we’ve got something to learn from. But he seems to take it and grasp it quick.”
Nelson should have plenty of time to find his footing 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 Miller Moss.
Having those experienced passers around Nelson, Riley said, “has been a big plus.”
The freshman still isn’t cleared for full contact, but quarterbacks don’t take contact during spring, anyway. Beyond that, Riley said there are “not too many limitations” with Nelson at the moment.
“We’ll have to be careful with him in team settings,” Riley said, “but we’ll be able to do most of the things, which is obviously key for his development.”
USC hoped that some rest and rehab might be enough for Eric Gentry’s injured ankle to fully recover. But as the weeks passed this offseason, that progress never quite materialized.
Eventually, Gentry opted for ankle surgery. The procedure will keep him out for the rest of spring.
“He’ll be back very, very quickly after,” the coach said. “And probably would’ve missed spring ball regardless of when he had the surgery.”