In the final few hours of the early signing period, at the conclusion of a rollicking few weeks of recruiting, Lincoln Riley preached patience.
For the new coach, there would be no colossal first class overflowing with top recruits, no tidal wave of talent suddenly surging onto USC’s campus. California’s top prospect, Santa Ana Mater Dei cornerback Domani Jackson, had announced his pledge to the Trojans just an hour before — a major victory by any measure — but he was just one player in what’s so far only a seven-man class. Of the 69 recruiting classes ranked ahead of USC’s by 247 Sports, none had so few signees.
But as he reviewed the seven players who did sign, USC’s new coach seemed unfazed by such preconceptions. The class was smaller than usual, Riley acknowledged. But the early signing period, as he saw it, was an arbitrary deadline. There was no sense in rushing the roster overhaul to come just for the sake of signing a higher-rated class on paper.
“There’s been a lot of interest in people wanting to come here,” Riley said. “But we said in the beginning what our priorities are going to be for creating a championship roster here, and we said we’re not going to stray from that, even though it’s tempting. It is. It’s tempting to want to come up here today and have 20 names on this list. But we know in the end that’s not how you build a championship roster. It’s about getting the right names. The numbers will come.”
Jackson was the only new name added to that list Friday, as the elite cornerback prospect chose USC over Alabama. His signing marks the second consecutive year in which the state’s top prospect chose USC. Last season, Corona Centennial defensive end Korey Foreman signed with the Trojans in a decision that was lauded by USC as a landscape-altering moment for a program that previously watched top prospects leave California in droves.
This time, there were no billboards or slickly edited videos to announce the signing of Jackson, who as the No. 7 overall prospect in the country is the second-highest-rated player signed at USC in its last seven classes. Riley stopped short of interpreting any larger meaning in signing the state’s top prospect, even as others around college football did that work for him.
“Getting the best ones obviously is a huge, huge deal for us,” Riley said. “Does it send a message? I don’t know. I’ll let the outside decide that. But I don’t think Domani and a few of these others — they would not be signing here unless they felt the momentum of this.”
That momentum proved to be more of a slow burn this week. USC added another five-star Mater Dei standout in running back Raleek Brown, whom Riley called “one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country.” The Trojans signed a top-50 safety in Zion Branch and a four-star cornerback in Fabian Ross. But the rest of the group consisted of a “diamond in the rough” linebacker (Garrison Madden), a late-blooming edge rusher (Devan Thompkins) and a punter (Atticus Bertrams).
With less than three weeks to construct his first class from scratch, Riley said he and his staff chose not to preoccupy themselves with chasing long-shot prospects he didn’t know or who previously didn’t consider USC. Instead, they focused on top recruits with whom they were already familiar, like Brown, who was previously committed to Riley at Oklahoma.
That approach could make for a small class in 2022, although several top prospects are still expected to consider USC in the coming weeks. Two top-100 prospects — Mater Dei wide receiver C.J. Williams and Bishop Gorman (Nev.) edge rusher Cyrus Moss — could choose USC at the Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 8 in San Antonio, Texas.
“We’ll get the right pieces, trust me,” Riley said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re selective and that we avoid maybe the one that wouldn’t fit in our program. So we stuck to that, we’ll continue to stick to that. The board grows and changes not just every day but about every five minutes right now.”
And then there’s the transfer portal, in which Riley said he expects USC to be a major player ahead of spring.
“I’d say we’re open for business on all accounts,” Riley said of the portal.
Already, eight Trojans from last season’s team have entered their names in the portal, and that number is only expected to grow. Riley said Friday that he expects to turn over at least 35 roster spots — roster churn that’s basically equivalent to half a program’s travel roster. That means many more players could announce their departures in the weeks to come while others are added ahead of spring football.
Until then, Riley said, there would be no cutting corners in rebuilding USC’s roster.
“We’re not trying to win a Wednesday in December, a Wednesday in February,” Riley said. “Those are part of it. We get that. But the ultimate goal is to put the best football team we can out there, to put a championship-level roster together. … We know what that looks like.
“I think if we weren’t as confident in our approach or what it looks like, the temptation to rush it, to maybe bypass some of the procedure and process that it takes to evaluate and make sure you’re bringing in the right pieces, we’d probably be more tempted to do that, to be a little less committed to the cause. But that’s just not the case in our room. We know what it’s like, and we’re not going to settle for anything less.”