THE HOME TEAM locker room at AT&T Stadium was quiet. At first, no words were spoken, no music played from the speakers. Despite an 11-win season after a 4-8 year, there was no room for celebration. As pads came off USC players’ shoulders for the last time in the 2022-23 season, tears surfaced.
The Trojans had been up by 15 points with less than five minutes left in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic but, with victory well within their grasp, they allowed Tulane to engineer a shocking comeback to win the New Year’s Six bowl, clouding USC’s incredible turnaround season.
“It was heart-wrenching,” nickelback Jaylin Smith said. “To work so hard for an opportunity like this and to come up short. There were a lot of tears in there.”
When coach Lincoln Riley finally entered the room and spoke to the players on hand, he had a simple message.
“Remember this feeling.”
For players like Smith, who recalled Riley’s words from that night, that feeling is vivid. But over the past eight months, the emotion has evolved from being a hollow disappointment to a motivational fuel that USC hopes will define a season with a better ending.
“We tapered off at the end of the season,” said center Justin Dedich, who decided to return to USC for one more season. “The motto this year is the longer it goes, the better we get.”
As USC readies itself for Year 2 of the Riley era, starting Saturday against San Jose State, the task at hand is different from turning around a 4-8 season. After losing to Utah in the Pac-12 championship, missing a shot at the College Football Playoff and having its greatest weakness — an inconsistent defense — on full display, expectations have only grown. USC is ranked sixth in the AP preseason poll — and questions around the Trojans’ defense have only gotten louder.
With a Heisman-winning quarterback in tow, a slew of returning starters and talented transfer additions, there’s plenty of pressure surrounding the team in its last season as part of the Pac-12. A year into their tenure, Riley & Co. head into the 2023 campaign attempting to harness new talent, continuity and improvement into not just a cohesive team but a championship-caliber one that won’t come up short again.
“I think that’s ultimately been everyone’s motivation,” Smith said. “If you were in that locker room after Tulane, you know the feeling, and I think everyone that was in there, they get the feeling, and they are motivated to never feel that way again.”
ALEX GRINCH DID something this offseason that he hadn’t done in his entire coaching career. As he began the process of taking stock of his first season as the Trojans’ defensive coordinator, Grinch realized going back and reviewing game film wasn’t going to be enough. He needed to go back and watch film of USC’s practices, too.
“It provides a little bit of insight maybe why you didn’t do certain things. It again takes some discipline, and you got to rip off some Band-Aids to do some of those things,” Grinch said. “For instance, finishing football. If you can’t put together on Tuesday and Wednesday two hours of practice building and scouting, it’s going to be really hard to put 60 minutes in [on Saturdays].”
Grinch studied the film and then, a few months ago, brought in some of the team’s defensive leaders to review it as well. It proved illuminating, as coaches and players saw how some things the unit was doing at the start of the year dissipated over the course of the season.
“Being able to look back and say, ‘This was helping us,’ or ‘We kind of got away from this, and it started to hurt us,'” linebacker Shane Lee said. “It can definitely be a tool if you use it right.”
Grinch, whose seat warmed after the loss to Tulane, hasn’t shied away from the facts: Last season, USC’s defense was near the bottom of the FBS in nearly every statistical category except for turnovers forced (sixth in the country). It allowed 27 plays of 20 yards or more, 13 plays of 30 yards or more, eight plays of 40 yards or more, and four plays of 50 yards or more — numbers that all ranked in the bottom 30 defenses in the country.
Talk to any player on the USC defense and a stream of honest acknowledgements surface when discussing last year’s performance. There’s little sugarcoating or beating around the bush — they all know it wasn’t good enough.
“We don’t really look at rankings, but the rankings show that we weren’t the best we could be,” Smith said. “It was frustrating.”
According to the junior safety, strength coach Benny Wylie spent the summer emphasizing those rankings to the defense, reminding them during workouts of, for example, how many points USC’s defense gave up in the fourth quarter. The answer was an average of 10.4 points per fourth quarter — 128th in the country.
“We want to be an effort-based defense, a fast defense, playing free and playing with an edge, something we missed last year,” redshirt senior Bryson Shaw said. “There was a certain type of competitive vibe to us that we were missing.”
It wasn’t just the players. Grinch said he spent the offseason balancing out trying to learn from what worked and didn’t work for last year’s team while also reminding himself that it still helped USC win 11 games and, most importantly, that he couldn’t approach this season as if he were trying to coach last season’s unit.
“Everything is obviously on the table moving forward, but the big-picture stuff in terms of who you want to be and what you want to be. Did we succeed in that in Year 1? No, but that piece doesn’t change,” Grinch said. “What you’re looking for is the tangible piece. The fact is we now have to make sure we play more physically, play faster. … All those things have to move the needle.”
If there wasn’t enough pressure heading into Year 1, there certainly is now. And if the early part of this season displays similar struggles, those negatives will linger. Grinch recognizes that, and, as he put it, he can’t fight narratives. Last month, when a reporter asked him how he felt about the perception that he is coaching for his job this season, Grinch didn’t flinch.
“I think 21 years in the business, I mean, I think you’re coaching for your job all the time,” Grinch said. “I think pressure comes with it. I think about whether it’s Missouri or Washington State or Ohio State or Oklahoma, I don’t think I feel any different than I have in any of those years. There’s a lot of pressure.”
Despite the chatter about Grinch’s job being in jeopardy after the Tulane loss, Riley didn’t waver either, instead reaffirming his commitment in Grinch. This year, there’s added depth and experience at nearly every position, which has bred a productive competition across the board, in large part because USC once again dipped deep into the transfer portal to find an edge. Literally.
MARSHAWN LLOYD WAS still wearing the garnet and black colors of the other USC across the country when he was watching Lincoln Riley’s USC wide-eyed and with a tinge of jealousy.
“I watched the Utah game and the Tulane game, and I hadn’t committed,” Lloyd said. “I was just like, ‘Man, I would love to be in that type of offense.'”
Eight months later, Lloyd now wears cardinal and gold, having spoken his wish into reality by transferring from South Carolina to Southern California and landing squarely in the middle of the offense he admired from afar. Lloyd, who rushed for 573 yards and nine touchdowns last season, is one of several talented transfers who entered the portal this offseason and ended up choosing the Trojans.
As offensive fixtures such as Jordan Addison and Travis Dye left for the NFL, the Trojans had no problem reloading on offense. They added the likes of Lloyd, Arizona‘s Dorian Singer — the Pac-12’s second-leading receiver last year — while bolstering their offensive line with four-star offensive lineman Emmanuel Pregnon from Wyoming and three-star offensive lineman Michael Tarquin from Florida.
While last year’s portal run for USC was in large part due to the circumstance of overhauling a roster, this year’s additions seem to be more rooted in USC’s success and in its obvious needs after losing its final two games last year. It’s why most of its biggest targets in the portal ended up being on defense.
After losing its best defensive player, Tuli Tuipulotu, to the NFL draft, USC had to address that aforementioned edge rusher position and its defensive line as a whole. That unit is where USC found the most transfer portal success, adding players such as three-star Kyon Barrs from Arizona in December along with four-star Jack Sullivan from Purdue, four-star Anthony Lucas from Texas A&M, and eventually the biggest get of them all in four-star defensive lineman Bear Alexander from Georgia.
“We have more good players and less bad players,” Riley said matter-of-factly of the difference between this year and this time last year. “The front seven defensively is a huge difference. It feels a lot different, a little more competition across the board.”
The linebackers represent this notion well. Between a veteran and captain like Lee, a dynamic returning transfer in Eric Gentry and transfer additions such as Jamil Muhammad from Georgia State and four-star linebacker Mason Cobb from Oklahoma State, the room is loaded with options, and that’s before even considering true freshman Tackett Curtis, who has earned some reps among the first team in practice and is listed as the starter at Will linebacker on USC’s recently released depth chart.
Cobb, in particular, has been a standout for more than just his play. In a short time, he has become not just a fixture of the USC defense but a leader for the whole team, all of whom wax poetic about the new guy who has transformed into a team captain in record time.
“That guy deserves it,” Shaw said. “He came in right away and I felt like I knew him forever. He’s got a certain vibe to him, and we all gravitate to it. We’re very excited that he’s here.”
When Riley first arrived at USC, he emphasized his preference to build his team through high school recruiting over relying heavily on the portal. That reliance diminished slightly this season, with 15 incoming transfers compared with 20 last year.
“Moving forward, what you don’t do is say, ‘Well, we’re not doing transfer, we’re not doing high school guys,'” Grinch said. “Let’s make the best roster we possibly can.”
While USC keeps jumping up the recruiting rankings and getting commitments from players such as the top quarterback in the 2026 class, Julian Lewis, there is still an unspoken urgency to build a roster this season that can win now, in what will likely be Caleb Williams‘ final college season.
IT IS A prefix that will forever precede his name — Heisman winner — but Williams has already moved past it.
“He achieved the greatest award you can — the Heisman — and he wants more,” Dedich said. “Not many people can actually go out there and do that.”
A glance at Williams’ Instagram feed is enough to perceive the ways he has enjoyed and supercharged his offseason after winning the Heisman. Visiting London. Walking the runway at Paris Fashion Week. Attending an F1 race in Monaco. Throwing the first pitch at a Dodgers game. His teammates, though, have seen him in different contexts: hanging out, planning team activities, throwing at summer workouts.
“Everyone thinks he’s Superman, but he’s still human,” Dedich said.
Williams, for his part, knows that remaining level with the teammates he will have to correct or praise at some point is crucial to his role as a leader. It’s why he knows coasting in practices or workouts isn’t an option. Or why being the one to create chemistry by spending time outside the football field with the rest of the team is crucial to USC’s success.
“Comfort and confidence,” Williams said when asked what is different going into his second season at USC. “Not just for myself but for everybody overall. Confidence in the scheme. When you get a year under your belt, you get a bunch of trials and tribulations, you get successful plays, you get some confidence, and you get to work with it the whole summer. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
Those who have been around Williams can attest to the growth. Some say he has stepped into being as much of a coach as he can be as a player. Others call out his leadership, while those who transferred to USC don’t hesitate when admitting he was a factor in their decision. Arriving on campus and interacting with Williams in person has only bolstered their belief that they made the right choice.
“He organizes workouts and brings us along,” Singer said. “He brought the offensive line to his first pitch at the Dodgers game; he took the team paintballing a couple weeks ago. So it’s things like that that people don’t see that makes him really special.”
Yet nothing brings home that point more than when Williams becomes as anonymous as he can be these days, putting on a helmet before putting on a show.
“He’s a unique talent and a unique person,” Dedich said when asked about the comparison between Williams and Patrick Mahomes. “People are going to compare other kids to Caleb one day.”
Defensive leaps and improvements on offense should boost USC’s chances this season, but every player is conscious of the fact that the Trojans’ chances rely heavily on Williams, whom every teammate seems to be running out of adjectives to describe. It is fitting then, that the rare critique comes from the person who knows him best.
“He’s played a year and a half of college football. There’s 15 more levels he can get to,” Riley said. “He needs to get better at a little bit of everything. I don’t know if you guys believe me when I tell you that actually is the truth. He’s tremendous, but he doesn’t walk on water yet. He’s got a lot of work to do, and he’s the first one to admit that.”
If Williams’ teammates are the chorus of praise Williams has earned, Riley is the realist, the motivator who knows that the task of improving upon last season won’t be easy, even with a roster that’s deeper, better and more committed to winning.
“I do think he’s a better player right now than he was,” Riley said. “But he’s got a whole new set of challenges that are coming up that he’s gonna have to be ready to work with.”
So far the new and improved Williams show has come behind closed doors, in practices where only a handful of people can watch. Come Saturday, the stage will welcome Williams once again. And after the past eight months of work, USC is hoping the team that joins him up there will be a far better version than the one the Trojans have left behind.