Showtime: Lincoln Riley’s star-studded USC set for debut

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LOS ANGELES — The new era of Southern California football has been assembled like a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.

The Trojans tapped a young upstart with a stellar track record in former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to lead production. He’s assembled a star-studded roster that includes former Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams and 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner in wide receiver Jordan Addison to relaunch a program with multiple national championships and seven Heisman Trophies in its illustrious history.

The show begins with a home game against Rice on Saturday. But the success of this season and what USC No. 14 officials hope will be a long and storied tenure for Riley, 38, will depend on the chemistry formed between the new faces.

Count Williams, who threw for 21 touchdowns to four interceptions as a freshman at Oklahoma, is intrigued to get a first look.

“Honestly, we all come out on one sideline, all together, all fighting for one goal,” he said. “That’s what I’m really, really excited to see.”

USC has 24 transfers among the 35 new players on its roster, including several proven performers on offense with solid Power 5 resumes.

The addition of Addison, who had 100 receptions for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns at Pitt as the top receiver in college football, blew offensive coordinator Josh Henson away.

“I was trying to think, even aside from Caleb, I don’t know of another time in my career that we’ve had a transfer of guys into our program that I’m like, ‘Wow’, is that proven from a player on that level. So, yeah, I mean, what can you say? That’s exciting, isn’t it,” Henson said.

But collections of gifted players don’t necessarily translate to success on the pitch. Developing relationships quickly between the newcomers and the survivors of the 4-8 team is essential after the dismissal of coach Clay Helton at the start of last season.

It seems to have worked as Williams and linebacker Shane Lee — who were no strangers to championships during his time at Alabama before coming to USC — were voted team captains.

“They could have been the ones to reject, and they were the opposite, the opposite of that, so I’m very grateful,” Williams said. “Like I said, very grateful, and I can’t wait to hang out with them.”

The most striking positional group overhaul came at wide receiver, where the Trojans brought in Addison, Terrell Bynum (Washington), Brenden Rice (Colorado) and Mario Williams (Oklahoma). Bynum brings plenty of experience from his time with the Huskies, Rice showed promise in an inconsistent Buffaloes passing game, and Williams has formed a strong bond with the namesake at quarterback as a rookie in Oklahoma.

“I think we can definitely live up to the hype. I think we’re the best ballroom in the country,” Rice said.

While Caleb Williams and his receivers received the bulk of the attention, the ground game for USC also brought some interesting options. Former Oregon star Travis Dye returned home after rushing for 1,271 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Austin Jones paced Stanford in rushing yards during the truncated 2020 season. Tiny freshman Raleek Brown could be used in multiple roles to showcase his speed.

“Oh, I love passing the ball to these guys,” Williams said. “They can all throw one for a touchdown or an explosive play, so I love giving them the ball because it makes it easier for me.”

The pass rush is arguably the biggest defensive question mark for USC. Rice’s experience in multiple positions on his offensive line might provide a first indication of where this group stands. Left tackle Clay Servin has started 25 straight games, and center Shea Baker will start for the fifth consecutive season.

Fifth-year junior Wiley Green won quarterback competition in training camp for the Owls, who went 4-8 last season. This will be Green’s third time starting a season opener at Rice, having previously done so in 2019 and 2021.

Rice is 0-8-1 at the start of the season against a ranked opponent, after playing LSU to a 6-6 draw to open the 1962 campaign. The Owls are also 1-13- 1 in California, with 10 straight losses after a 30-7 win at Stanford in 1957.

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