Three things to look for in USC’s spring game

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams throws the ball during a USC spring practice.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams throws the ball during a USC spring practice. Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma, is among many players who will make their debut for the Trojans Saturday. (Amanda Chou | Daily Trojan)

For the first time in recent memory, the eyes of the sports world are on USC football.

The Trojans haven’t recorded a 10-win season since 2017. Fans and players called for the firing of former Head Coach Clay Helton as early as 2019. After an embarrassing 42-28 loss to Stanford in the second week of last season, their wish was granted.

When former Oklahoma Head Coach Lincoln Riley was announced as Helton’s replacement, he was followed to USC by a slew of high-profile transfers from across the country. It’s safe to say there are high expectations for tomorrow’s spring game. 

A typical spring game would see the roster split in two, with each squad containing a fair mix of projected starters, known backups and walk-ons. However, Riley announced in an interview that this year’s game will take the format of an offense vs. defense scrimmage. Fans will have to wait until fall to see how the team holds up in competition, but for now, here are three factors  to look out for this spring game that could forecast the success of the Trojans’ upcoming season.

1. Who’s catching passes?

Despite losing Drake London to the draft, the Trojans find themselves somewhat bloated at the receiver position entering the 2022 season. Between transfers, a recruit and numerous returning starters, USC has more quality receivers than reps to give.

USC returns junior Gary Bryant Jr., who started seven games in 2021 and hauled in 44 receptions for 579 yards and 7 touchdowns. Also returning are redshirt junior Kyle Ford — whose 2021 season was limited by a series of knee injuries — redshirt junior Tahj Washington and former four-star recruit redshirt freshman Kyron Ware-Hudson, among others.

Returners will have to compete with a number of high-profile newcomers. Five-star freshman CJ Williams will certainly command playing time, as will Oklahoma transfer sophomore Mario Williams, who carries an advantage in being the only Trojan receiver with whom sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams has played. 

Other newcomers include Washington transfer redshirt senior Terrell Bynum and Colorado transfer junior Brenden Rice. Bynum and Rice’s proven experience against Pac-12 defenses will certainly be a selling point in their fight for playing time, as will USC’s returning Ford and Bryant Jr. Additionally, Riley’s new offense will include a more dynamic role for USC’s tight ends, which will further complicate the competition for targets.

2. Transfers

The Trojans boast a number of high-profile transfers this season, and not just in the receiver room. Fans will see plenty of new players take the field Saturday and should expect immediate contributions from transfers on both sides of the ball.

Last year at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams threw for 1,912 yards and 21 touchdowns after replacing starter Spencer Rattler
mid-season. But USC isn’t Oklahoma, and Williams will have to prove that his stellar freshman year wasn’t just a product of lackluster Big-12 defense. 

Considering Riley named sophomore backup Miller Moss in an interview as his most improved player for the spring season, assuming that the job is Williams’ to lose would be a stretch. The two have split reps throughout spring practice. Look for Williams to prove himself early on, and, if not, for Moss to take the spotlight.

USC’s running back position is wide open following the loss of Vavae Malepeai, Keaontay Ingram and Kenan Christon. Poised to contribute is redshirt Oregon transfer senior Travis Dye, whose 1,672 all-purpose yards led the Pac-12 last season. Dye will compete for playing time with Stanford transfer senior Austin Jones, who has been noted by coaches as a standout during spring practice for his explosive running.

Senior linebacker Shane Lee, who tallied 96 tackles with 6 sacks in three seasons at Alabama before transferring to USC, will look to contribute immediately in the box. On the edge will be redshirt sophomore Romello Height, an Auburn transfer who logged 19 tackles (three for losses) in 2021. Other notable additions to the Trojan defense include Colorado transfer redshirt senior defensive back Mekhi Blackmon and TCU transfer redshirt junior defensive lineman Earl Barquet Jr.

3. New scheme

Fans will see a different playbook under USC’s new coaching staff. Riley is best known for his Oklahoma spread offense, which popularized the concept within powerhouse college football. 

His variation of the traditional air raid scheme uses long-range passing and play-action to build on a successful run-pass-option game. This will help to incorporate more of the Trojans’ talented receivers into the offense, including the tight ends, who Riley said will take on a revitalized H-back role in the new scheme.

USC’s defense struggled in 2021, allowing 409 yards per game. Riley brought along former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to take on the same role at USC. 

In his first press conference, Grinch noted that the team has “a long way to go,” but that the roster certainly holds talent. But Grinch certainly has critics of his own, as last year’s Oklahoma defense didn’t fare much better than the Trojans, allowing only 18 fewer YPG than USC. 

Riley has been hailed as the man that will bring championship football back to Southern California, and his offense will be powerful enough to do so. But for the Trojans to claim gold come January, Grinch will need to show he can do more with this defensive unit than he did for the Sooners.

There will also be pregame festivities for fans to buy USC merchandise outside the Coliseum. Fans can take a tour of the Scholarship Club after the game.

Kick-off is at 12 p.m. Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Trojans will begin warming up at 11 a.m.