Five takeaways from midway through spring practice

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams looks on during USC’s spring practice Thursday.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams looks on during USC’s spring practice Thursday. Williams mentioned he’s been working on learning how to stay in the pocket and not move around as much as he did last season. (Amanda Chou | Daily Trojan)

Three weeks have passed since USC began its first spring practice of the Lincoln Riley era. We’ve seen imminent changes and tweaks to a program that was surely in need of some. 

As we enter the second half of spring practice, Riley said this is the time where average teams begin to fall off and great teams start to separate themselves from the pack. It’s too soon to evaluate that, but for now, here are five takeaways midway through spring practice. 

Energy and rapid improvement

When USC Head Coach Lincoln Riley shocked the college football world by coming to Los Angeles, it was clear that changing the program wouldn’t happen overnight. It hasn’t so far, but the energy around the program shifted immediately. 

Multiple position coaches, like offensive line coach Josh Henson and defensive backs coach Donte Williams, mentioned the positive reactions from players surrounding the changes to the program and improvement. 

Williams said players had “a ton of energy.” As early as last Saturday, that improvement continues to happen at “all levels” Riley said. Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch also mentioned there’s been some good work overall on his side.

The energy in practices was evident from the first day of spring work, compared to last season where players showed sudden bursts of energy, then massive drop offs.

The rapid progression of players’ adapting to the new system is a great sign of the team’s response to the changes implemented. When a new staff comes in, it may take time for players to buy into the new culture. Instead, Riley’s team has demonstrated a “good natural progress,” midway into spring practices, Riley said. 

Caleb Williams’ progression in Riley’s offense

Out of all the USC transfers, sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams is the flashiest one. In one season at Oklahoma, Williams threw for nearly 2,000 yards with 21 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He also ran for 442 yards and 6 touchdowns. 

Oddly enough, Williams said he’s practicing “not moving around so much,” and sitting in the pocket more than last season. It’s a different strategy from a player who electrified last season with his legs. 

Williams’ decision to stay in the pocket may foreshadow how defenses will possibly play him. Since he can break into space easily and turn small gains into big ones, learning to be effective in the pocket is crucial. Pac-12 defenses will also surely hope to contain him inside the pocket.

Even though Williams is working on staying patient, it doesn’t mean he won’t turn up the field. During last Tuesday’s practice, redshirt junior tight end Jude Wolfe said that Williams had a 40-yard run during a team period.

At Thursday’s practice, Riley said Williams practicing his pocket work is “a part of progression of a young quarterback.” Whether or not that will show up on the field in the fall is still up for debate. 

The “Gold Plated” decal

One of the more intriguing changes to this program so far has been the integration of “Gold Plated,” a decal process for helmets. 

Players start with a blank Cardinal helmet and have to earn the Trojan logo in a variety of ways — demonstrating habits off and on the field, having a competitive nature, upholding accountability and showing reliability. 

Teammates nominate each other, and then have to receive final approval from the staff. Sophomore inside linebacker Raesjon Davis was the most recent recipient of the decal. USC football great Matt Leinart was on hand last Tuesday to award Davis with the honor. 

It’s a competitive and cultural aspect of this team that seemed absent in previous years. Riley seems to use the decal process as a way to motivate players to not only be excellent on the field but everywhere outside of the field. Accountability was always a problem during former Head Coach Clay Helton’s tenure, which makes the transition into this next takeaway seamless. 

No shortage of accountability in the program

One of the hot topics going into Riley’s era was how he’d address accountability. That always seemed to hurt Helton, prompting lots of change on Riley’s part.

It seems like he’s taken that as seriously as anyone. Last Saturday, he mentioned reporters would be on Zoom the entire weekend if he talked about some of the changes he’s made in terms of accountability. 

Everyone and everything is held to the same standards under Riley. Whether it’s working with a tutor academically or going to a position meeting, everything is treated the same. It’s either a championship standard or bust. 

That championship level is critical in a program that has only one Pac-12 championship in the previous 10 seasons. If USC hopes to get back there, it has to start with accountability and holding everyone to the same standards. Riley hasn’t shied away from ensuring that. 

Alabama transfer Shane Lee’s emergence as a leader

When graduate student inside linebacker Shane Lee made the transfer from Alabama to USC, it was no secret he would be huge for the linebacker group. A player with experience in the toughest conference and on one of the best college football teams in the country would surely help establish a culture. 

So far, he’s done that and become one of the Trojans’ top leaders. 

Riley said Lee has been “instrumental within our program,” with a very similar impact to what former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts had when he came to Oklahoma three years ago. He also added that Lee bought into his role as a leader from day one and is critically important to the culture change at USC with his aggressive leadership.

 Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom said Lee “adds a lot to the room” through his experience and the way he carries himself. Odom also mentioned Thursday that Lee, along with senior linebacker Ralen Goforth, has separated himself from the linebacker group. 

Lee has simply made a huge impact on not only the defensive side of the team, but for the Trojans in general. Being from a winning program at Alabama, Lee brings a rare quality to the table for someone in the transfer portal. 

His experience will prove crucial for holding the middle of the field down.