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Notre Dame’s Opponents: New-look USC may be a test-case for rebuilding programs of the future

USC Spring Game

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23: Quarterbacks Caleb Williams #13 talks with head coach Lincoln Riley during the 2022 USC Spring Football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on April 23, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

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If USC had not been so bold as to chase Lincoln Riley, there is a very real chance Brian Kelly is still Notre Dame’s head coach heading into this season. Instead, the Trojans successfully wooed Riley, stymying LSU’s hopes of pulling the young coach out of Oklahoma. Thus, the Tigers and Kelly moved quickly to announce an agreement even though the Irish were still rather in the Playoff conversation.

There is a bit more heft to that thought than a usual butterfly effect theory, but it will go down as a piece of the Notre Dame-USC lore, and it is one more piece of proof of how interconnected so much of college football is.

This section of these opposing teams’ previews was always going to matter least with the Trojans. Playing them after Thanksgiving renders any 2021 thoughts outdated by the full coming season.

But in this instance, looking back at 2021 matters even less. USC started the season 1-1, and that blowout loss to Stanford led to the immediate firing of Clay Helton in his sixth year leading the Trojans, not to mention two previous stints as their interim head coach.

USC finished the season 4-8 and then reeled in Riley only hours after it lost to BYU. At that point, the Trojans’ season was not even over, given their matchup with Cal had been postponed due to health and safety protocols. USC lost that, too.

Thus began the great roster transition. Reportedly, 40-some players left the Trojans roster following last season. Riley brought in at least 20 transfers. Never before has the previous season offered so little insight into the coming one.

Some of those 40 were always going to depart Los Angeles. The time had come for them to jump to the NFL. Namely, receiver Drake London put together one of the greatest eight-game stretches ever seen before an injury cut short his year. Including his 15 catches for 171 yards against Notre Dame, a showing that the Irish considered somewhat contained, London finished his abbreviated season with 88 receptions for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns.

Running back Keaontay Ingram and his 1,067 yards from scrimmage also headed to the NFL, as did dynamic edge rusher Drake Jackson (37 tackles with eight for loss including five sacks).

Riley would have liked to retain some of those 40, most notably two cornerbacks who tried their hands in the NFL draft only to go undrafted. And some of those 40 were certain to leave USC the moment Riley was hired simply because of the obvious dominos that would follow. Quarterback Kedon Slovis will now start at Pittsburgh and Jaxson Dart will take over at Mississippi under former Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin.

Let’s start by rattling off the most notable transfers:

Quarterback Caleb Williams: Threw for 21 touchdowns with just four interceptions in only seven starts as a freshman last season at Oklahoma under Riley. Completed 64.5 percent of his passes and averaged 9.1 yards per pass attempt while adding another 442 yards and six touchdowns rushing.

Receiver Jordan Addison: The most angst-riddled transfer of an offseason filled with angst-riddled transfers, Addison left Pittsburgh for the West Coast amid rampant rumors as to his motivation. Regardless of that impossible-to-prove criticism, Addison caught 100 passes last season for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Receiver Mario Williams: The now-sophomore caught 35 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns, mostly from Caleb Williams (not related), at Oklahoma last year.Receiver Brenden Rice: The son of Jerry Rice, Brenden transferred from Colorado after catching 21 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns last season.Receiver Tyrrell Bynum: The Washington transfer had 26 catches for 436 yards and four touchdowns in 2021.

Running back Travis Dye: The Oregon transfer should be USC’s lead ball carrier after gaining a total of 1,673 yards from scrimmage with 18 touchdowns on 257 touches last year. That was an average of 6.51 yards gained per touch.Running back Austin Jones: The Stanford transfer’s stats were modest — 139 total touches for 625 yards and three scores, an average of 4.5 yards per touch — partly because nearly anything related to the Cardinal offense produced, at best, modestly.

Lastly, Virginia left tackle Bobby Haskins will join USC veteran Andrew Vorhees as the stalwarts along the line. It is not that Riley did not pursue more offensive line talent because he is imminently comfortable with what is already on the roster; he simply did not pull as much in.

Defensively, the Trojans again filled the depth chart with transfers, but none of them boast the experience and pedigree of either Williams, Addison or Dye on the offensive side. The defensive transfers had been passed over by better players (safety Bryson Shaw at Ohio State, though he started 12 games last year) or lost their roles amid injured seasons (linebacker Shane Lee coming from Alabama).

There is talent in this influx, but not distinctly enough to provide the same surge on defense that is widely expected from USC’s offense.

Defensive end Romello Height: 8 games, 18 tackles with three for loss at Auburn last season.Defensive end Solomon Byrd: 8 games, 37 tackles with 3.5 sacks at Wyoming last season.

Linebacker Eric Gentry: 10 games, 45 tackles with five for loss including one sack last season at Arizona State as he earned freshman All-American honors.Linebacker Shane Lee: Injuries cost him most of the last two years at Alabama.

Safety Bryson Shaw: 59 tackles in 12 starts (13 games) last year with one interception, but his starting gig was not going to be his again at Ohio State this season.Cornerback Mekhi Blackmon: The Colorado defensive back had 41 tackles and an interception in eight games last year.

Each of those players will make the Trojans defense better, and there were some names to note before these arrivals. Sophomore defensive end Korey Foreman is usually criticized in one of these previews with something to the tune of “after not contributing much in his debut season,” but the reality is he pressured the quarterback 11 times in his 113 snaps, per Pro Football Focus, notching 2.5 sacks in doing so. Extrapolate that kind of effectiveness into a rotational role, and Foreman may be an absolute menace in 2022.

He will be working alongside first-team All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Tuli Tuipolotu while a pair of underclassmen — sophomore safety Calen Bullock and freshman Domani Jackson — lead the secondary.

But right there should highlight the work ahead of Riley’s defensive coordinator of choice, Alex Grinch. He needs to lean on a freshman cornerback if his defense is going to be anywhere near as potent as Riley’s offense, ad that cornerback is likely to have to defend for long periods of time, since USC managed only 21 sacks last year, ranked No. 98 in the country.

Riley has called this “the most unique roster in college football history,” and one suspects that was more a sincere thought than an attempt at lowering expectations for a coach that was 55-10 in five years as the Oklahoma head coach.

The Trojans may be heading to the Big Ten in two years, but the timetable for contention expected from Riley is much sooner than that. Though the Pac-12 did not reschedule every team’s slate, it is ignoring division standings in 2022. The two teams with the best conference records will meet in the Pac-12 championship game, and USC is expected to be one of those, along with Utah.

Both have +225 odds of winning the conference, per PointsBet. The Trojans’ win total Over/Under of 9.5 hints at only three games of worry: at Utah, at UCLA and against Notre Dame. But with so much transition in the USC roster, could an early-season stumble be the most likely frustration?

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