USC’s Riley details recruiting coups, reunion with Williams

Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News
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LOS ANGELES — Lincoln Riley says he didn’t – and couldn’t – talk to Caleb Williams between the day the coach left Oklahoma and the day his once-and-future star quarterback entered the transfer portal five weeks later.

Southern California’s new coach had to wait patiently and stressfully for the chance to land the centerpiece of his first recruiting class with the Trojans, along with two more ex-Sooners who decided to follow Riley from Norman to the West Coast.

“There’s a long period of time where there’s zero communication,” Riley said Wednesday while announcing his February signing period class. “And then all of a sudden, Caleb and his parents make the decision to jump into the transfer portal. We had a conversation shortly after that, and I don’t think we talked even one bit of football. It was just kind of like a long-lost friend. It was good to be able to reconnect.”

Riley closed the deal with Williams for the second time, and the former five-star recruit enrolled at USC last Friday. The quarterback’s commitment capped a bountiful haul for the Trojans in the transfer portal: Riley signed 13 players away from other schools, from Oregon to Virginia, restocking his first roster with elite talent.

Riley said he doesn’t plan to rely on transfers this heavily in the future. His evaluation of the Trojans’ 2021 roster led him to identify spots needing quick improvement, and his coaching staff worked aggressively to find veteran collegiate players who wanted to join them.

“This is a unique year and a unique situation,” Riley said. “When you’re trying to really revamp a roster and fill the amount of spots that we’re attempting to fill, being able to have all these different mechanisms to use to fill that has been extremely valuable.”

USC signed two veteran Pac-12 running backs in Oregon’s Travis Dye and Stanford’s Austin Jones, who racked up a combined 2,318 yards of total offense last season. They also grabbed three productive transfer receivers: Oklahoma’s Mario Williams, Colorado’s Brenden Rice and Washington’s Terrell Bynum produced a combined 1,115 yards receiving last season.

Mario Williams and Caleb Williams already are a tight duo, and Riley believes his new quarterback will form similar bonds with his new receivers. Although Caleb Williams kept the Trojans waiting for nearly a month before announcing his decision, Riley knows Williams is eager to get to work in his new home.

“He works really hard at his craft, and he does a great job of bringing people together,” Riley said. “I think that’s what he’s most excited about right now is to just go to class, to get with the guys, to get back just in the flow of being part of a team and part of a university.”

The Trojans’ recruiting class is a mighty haul for a short time frame at a school that went 4-8 last season. Riley thinks the players were enticed by the chance to win quickly in a desirable location like Southern California, where name, image and likeness rights will only become more valuable in the uncertain recruiting landscape of the future.

“I think the real surge (in NIL) has happened now as recruiting has gotten competitive,” Riley said. “It’s a factor, and anybody that says it isn’t is not paying attention. … I think it’s going to continue to be another way that we as a program can separate ourselves, and we absolutely plan to do that.”

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.