The Lincoln Riley era at USC began with a record. Saturday’s spring game saw 33,427 fans assembled at the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch Riley and Co. reinject the program with some much-needed energy.
It’s the biggest crowd for a Trojans spring game since the 1990s, when the school started keeping track.
“If you’re in the city and don’t feel the momentum about this program, you’re not paying attention,” Riley said after the game. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking ahead to when the place is packed.”
The fulcrum of that newfound excitement may have been the surprising hiring of Riley away from Oklahoma, but it was Caleb Williams’ arrival from Norman through the transfer portal in February that brought even more excitement around the program, which went 4-8 last season.
On Saturday, in his first public unveiling as USC’s next quarterback, Williams showed plenty of flashes exhibiting why he garners such attention and why the Trojans’ immediate future looks as bright as the one Riley is trying to build over the long term.
In two 15-minute halves where he switched off drives with backup Miller Moss, Williams completed 10 of his 12 passes for 98 yards and threw two touchdowns. He also ran the ball twice for long gains. But it was the way he looked — from his poise, to his control in and out of the pocket, to the ease with which he did things — that bodes well for USC’s fall.
“I don’t really get nervous,” Williams said with a chuckle when asked about his first USC appearance. “It was awesome. … We’re not even close to what we’re going to be.”
Transfers have been a big part of the story since Riley arrived, and they were a big feature of the spring showcase. Former Oregon running back Travis Dye looked to have a firm handle on the lead back position, and Washington transfer Terrell Bynum led all receivers with 34 receiving yards.
Williams, for his part, went 9-for-9 for 90 yards and two touchdowns during his first two drives as a Trojan. He punctuated both by showing his connection with fellow Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams, finding him twice in the end zone.
Williams, whose official licensed apparel was on sale in the Coliseum concourse thanks to an NIL partnership, also looked as poised in and out of the pocket as he did while doing TV interviews during the game.
“It was a smooth day, but we got to get better at a lot of things,” Williams said. “We came out firing in the first half and the defense responded, so that’s a good sign.”
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu was a standout, totaling two tackles for loss and routinely getting in the backfield. Auburn transfer Romello Height also had a sack and as the game went along, the USC defense was able to get pressure on Williams. Alabama transfer Shane Lee, who has already assumed a leadership role on the defense said he was pleased with the foundation the Trojans have built on that side of the ball in the spring.
Players postgame lauded the culture Riley has instilled within the program in the past few months.
“He’s not afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings or hold dudes accountable,” said offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees, who was at USC last season.
“I don’t think we lacked the players and the personalities within the locker room to have good leadership,” Moss, who was also at USC last season, said. “I just think there wasn’t a forum that fostered leadership… [under Riley] we’ve been given a playbook so to speak on how to do that.”
Riley has been adamant that this is the most unique roster that not just USC has ever had, but that he’s ever built given the combination of returning, departing and transfer players that have made up this mix. He’s also said that he hopes to not use the portal as much in future years. Yet it’s clear that with Williams at USC for two more seasons, there’s a pressure to take advantage of the success window he creates.
“The guys out here, we could win a lot of games here,” Riley said, before reinforcing the notion that USC will be active in the transfer portal during the coming month. “We just need a little bit everywhere.”