Trojans 'surprised' and 'excited' by Lincoln Riley but not everyone can be optimistic

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Southern California head coach Donte Williams, center, celebrates with fellow coaches after a touchdown by running back Keaontay Ingram during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
USC interim coach Donte Williams, center, celebrates with fellow coaches after a touchdown by running back Keaontay Ingram during the first half against Oregon State on Sept. 25 at the Coliseum. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

At the end of one era at USC and the thrilling start of another, here was an awkward juxtaposition: As Lincoln Riley, the Trojans’ new coach, and the few assistants he’d already announced made their rounds on the practice field Tuesday night, USC’s current staff remained in their usual roles, coaching out their final few days with little clarity on what lies ahead after Saturday’s season finale at California.

For Donte Williams, these were especially odd circumstances. USC’s interim coach has led the Trojans ever since Clay Helton was fired in September, and through those two months, USC’s administration made it clear it hoped to retain him.

But in Riley’s unexpected arrival, Williams’ status was suddenly less certain, and as he was asked Tuesday about the prospect of joining USC’s next coach on staff, Williams chose to sidestep any such questions. Instead, he attempted to shift the focus from his future to Saturday’s mostly meaningless matchup with Cal.

“I haven’t even asked about that; I do not want to be informed,” Williams said. “All I care about is making sure we handle Cal. Everything for me is about Cal, trust me. That’s where my main focus is, that’s where my focus will stay. I don’t want it to swindle at all in any other direction. All day, I sit in here and watch film on Cal and offense, defense and special teams and make sure we’re fully prepared to play them.”

There was no official word on Williams’ future, and considering his answers, it’s unlikely one will be offered before that final game is complete.

On Monday, Riley said he would meet with the current coaches but didn’t “want to jump too quick.”

It’s unlikely that he’d jump at the chance to retain any of USC’s current coaches outside of Williams, even though Riley does have connections to offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, tight ends coach Seth Doege and offensive line coach Clay McGuire through their previous jobs or playing careers at Texas Tech.

Riley already has a defensive coordinator (Alex Grinch) and receivers coach (Dennis Simmons) in place. The rest of the staff is expected to be filled out over the next two weeks.

According to a report from 247 Sports, one Oklahoma assistant, Roy Manning, already called top recruit Domani Jackson on USC’s behalf. That call reportedly came the day after Manning had an in-home visit with an Oklahoma recruit.

Manning, who spent the last three seasons with the Sooners, just happens to coach cornerbacks, the same position group as Williams.

Asked if he hoped to stay on staff at USC, Williams called the inquiry “kind of like a trick question.”

“I mean, this is a great place, this is home for me,” Williams said. “So right now, once again, I’m still focused on Cal.”

That was the resounding message out of USC on Tuesday, even while many still were riding a high from Sunday’s bombshell hire. USC players would acknowledge only the smallest bit of excitement upon hearing the news about Riley, before then quickly refocusing on the task at hand Saturday.

New USC football coach Lincoln Riley speaks during an introductory ceremony.
New USC football coach Lincoln Riley speaks during an introductory ceremony at the Coliseum Monday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Still, it was impossible to ignore Riley observing things Tuesday as he walked the sideline alongside director of player personnel Spencer Harris.

“Definitely just excited,” defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “Everything is being evaluated. He’s watching. He’s seeing what we have, what we may need to address, and this is a big chance for everyone to step up and make a name for themselves.”

Safe to say none of the players expected the team’s third coach of the season to be as big a name as Riley.

“A lot of us were pretty surprised,” quarterback Jaxson Dart said. “Didn’t really hear his name much in the conversation about it. A lot of us are excited. We know his history and what he’s done to all the programs he’s been to.”

Riley has been especially good to quarterbacks, guiding two (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) to Heisman Trophy seasons and another (Jalen Hurts) to becoming a Heisman finalist. Less than a day after Riley was introduced at USC, he lured Los Alamitos five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson to join him there and decommit from Oklahoma. It’s unclear if other quarterbacks may join Riley before Dart has a chance to lay any groundwork.

When Riley addressed the team Monday, he made clear that “change is on the horizon,” Figueroa said.

“But change is good,” he continued.

For the players, that change meant clarity at the top of the program. For the coaches, it’s likely to mean something entirely different.

“There’s a lot of optimism for the future,” Figueroa said. “A lot of us have been in this sort of gray area of what the future may hold. So I think it’s nice to have some clarity and know this is an opportunity to play for our seniors and play an important game.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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