Lincoln Riley’s ‘good players’ ready to go

Los Angeles, CA - April 15: USC head coach Lincoln Riley, center, speaks with the team following the spring game at LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles Saturday, April 15, 2023. USC defense beat offense 34-42. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

USC coach Lincoln Riley, center, speaks with his team after the Trojans’ spring game at the Coliseum in April. USC enters its season opener against San José State with a lot more depth over last season’s squad. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

All eyes were fixed on the head coach, but Lincoln Riley kept his eyes on the field while identifying the key difference between USC’s program a year ago to now, days before his second season with the Trojans.

“More good players,” Riley said with a slight laugh, “less bad players.”

With more depth, an influx of talented transfers and a returning Heisman winner, the No. 6 Trojans enter Riley’s second season with sky-high expectations. Now, as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has said repeatedly this summer: “You have to go do it on Saturday.”

Here are five things to watch for USC’s season opener against San José State at the Coliseum on Saturday at 5 p.m. PDT (Pac-12 Network):

Encore! Encore!

USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass in practice.

With hopes of elevating each season, Riley said last year that he would be “disappointed” if his first roster wasn’t the “least-talented team” of his USC tenure. He still took that squad to 11 wins and one bad Caleb Williams hamstring away from the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Williams is Riley’s third Heisman-winning quarterback, but the first to return for an encore campaign under the coach. Although the junior reached the pinnacle of individual success, set numerous school records and has become the face of college football, Riley insists Williams is not done rising.

“There’s 15 more levels he can get at,” the coach said.

Read more: USC star Caleb Williams is not satisfied yet. ‘Immortality comes from championships.’

Everyday they’re shuffling

USC offensive lineman Gino Quinones (66) and Mason Murphy (76) celebrate a touchdown against Rice in September 2022.
USC offensive lineman Gino Quinones (66) and Mason Murphy (76) celebrate a touchdown against Rice in September 2022. (Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Position battles on the right side of the offensive line prompted the most questions during fall camp, but it was a spot on the left side that stayed locked in the tightest competition.

When USC released its first official depth chart Wednesday night, freshman Alani Noa and Wyoming transfer Emmanuel Pregnon were still listed as co-starters for Saturday’s season opener. Noa, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound former three-star prospect, has “been one of our best O-linemen,” Riley said.

“He’s incredibly gifted really for a young guy,” he continued, “plays hard, plays really physical and has done a good job picking our stuff up.”

While transfers Michael Tarquin (right tackle) and Jarrett Kingston (right guard) were listed as starters, returners Mason Murphy and Gino Quinones could still break into the rotation as the Trojans try to build depth on the offensive line. The expectation is that the best five-person lineup will “settle in,” Riley said, but when it comes to the offensive line, the coach knows things rarely go as planned.

“Most important you get the right five guys on the field,” Riley said, “but one of the hopes right now is we can be deeper, we can be a little bit better so that when [an injury] does happen, it doesn’t affect us quite as, at times, negatively as it did last year.”

Read more: Plaschke: Enough is enough. Give Reggie Bush back his Heisman Trophy

Play with an edge

USC defensive lineman Solomon Byrd follows a play against Fresno State in Sept. 2022.
USC defensive lineman Solomon Byrd follows a play against Fresno State in Sept. 2022. (John McCoy / Associated Press)

Despite the new faces to watch on USC’s rebuilt defensive front, Yogi Roth, the Pac-12 networks analyst calling Saturday’s season opener, will be keeping his eye on a key returner.

Rush end Solomon Byrd could be USC’s surprise player.

“He’s got something about how he moves, how he bends, the flexibility that he can provide and what that position wants,” Roth said.

Byrd showed flashes of dominance last season, totaling four tackles for losses against Stanford and Fresno State. But the redshirt senior who transferred from Wyoming had just 3.5 during the rest of the season.

Losing Pac-12 defensive player of the year Tuli Tuipulotu also puts pressure on transfers such as Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M), Bear Alexander (Georgia) and Jamil Muhammad (Georgia State) to contain San José State quarterback Chevan Cordeiro. The former Hawai’i star led the Mountain West in passing last year with 3,251 yards and 23 touchdowns while also running for nine touchdowns, the most for an SJSU quarterback in the modern era.

Read more: Commentary: Jennifer Cohen’s top task? Making sure Lincoln Riley is happy — and stays in L.A.

Freshman to the rescue

USC linebacker Tackett Curtis takes part in a spring practice in March.

USC linebacker Tackett Curtis takes part in a spring practice in March. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

One is a team captain, the other goes by “Captain America.” Together, Mason Cobb and Tackett Curtis are at the center of USC’s defensive revenge tour.

Curtis, a freshman who earned the Marvel-inspired nickname for his aggressive style of play, is projected to start Saturday along with Cobb, a senior captain, at inside linebacker. After moving up the depth chart in part because of injuries to returners Eric Gentry and Shane Lee, Curtis will be the first true freshman to start a season opener at his position since Cameron Smith in 2015.

Although Lee and Gentry, two of the team’s three leading tacklers last year, are on track to play Saturday, Curtis held on to his expanded role thanks to his unwavering effort that pairs well with the experienced Cobb, a transfer who amassed 106 tackles in three seasons at Oklahoma State.

“Tackett, man, he’s always running, he’s always going hard, so it does remind me of myself when I was growing up,” Cobb said with a wistful smile. “But man, he’s much more talented, much faster, quicker, stronger.”

Read more: USC lands commitment from quarterback Julian Lewis, the nation’s top 2026 recruit

Domani Jackson gets do-over

USC defensive back Domani Jackson warms up during a spring practice in April.

USC defensive back Domani Jackson warms up during a spring practice in April. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Domani Jackson’s much-anticipated debut last year didn’t go as the former five-star prospect planned.

Still recovering from a knee injury suffered during his senior season at Mater Dei, the cornerback played in seven games with just two tackles and one pass breakup. Acknowledging Jackson’s potential, coaches “tried to force feed him a little bit when we could,” Grinch said.

“Probably wasn’t completely fair to him to be honest,” the defensive coordinator added.

Read more: It’s now or never for top USC prospects Korey Foreman, Raesjon Davis and Domani Jackson

Healthy again this offseason, Jackson, a former track star who tied the California record in the 100 meters at 10.25 seconds, got the necessary reps during practice to rebuild his confidence. He was supposed to “be on a pitch count” during the spring, Grinch said, but progressed quickly enough to blow past expectations while staying healthy. After ending spring camp with the second unit, Jackson will earn the first start of his college career Saturday.

“[I] could not be any higher on Domani,” Grinch said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.