Four things to watch as USC begins spring football practice

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18, 2023: USC Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley looks.

After a disappointing 8-5 season salvaged only by a morale-boosting bowl win, USC opens spring practice Tuesday surrounded by more skepticism than optimism.

The Trojans have to replace 12 starters on offense and defense, including a Heisman Trophy winner.

They have a rebuilt defensive coaching staff with a new coordinator who must deliver on head coach Lincoln Riley’s promise that USC will play “great defense.”

They have a new conference waiting and a lot of work to do.

Here are four things to watch as USC beings practice Tuesday:

Is it still Miller’s Time?

He won over his teammates and won the Holiday Bowl, but Miller Moss’ six-touchdown passing performance against Louisville might not have been enough to win the starting quarterback job.

The redshirt junior will compete with transfer Jayden Maiava to secure the starting role in the post-Caleb Williams era. Maiava, a redshirt sophomore, threw for 3,085 yards and 17 touchdowns last year at UNLV and completed 63% of his throws after season-opening starter Doug Brumfield suffered an injury in Week 3.

Miller Moss throws a pass under pressure.

“We're going to let those guys duke it out,” Riley said last month. “That's kind of what it's all about. I think there's two starter-level players in that room, two guys that have kind of proved it in different ways already and they're both going to certainly get their shot here."

While Riley suggested before the bowl game he would pursue two transfer quarterbacks, he said Miller’s performance against Louisville and the Bishop Alemany graduate's leadership during bowl preparations made finding an older, more experienced quarterback less important. The Trojans have only two scholarship signal-callers on the roster after not signing a quarterback in this recruiting class.

Can D’Anton Lynn strike gold again at USC?

Only a change at quarterback could overshadow USC’s ongoing hunt for a functional defense. D’Anton Lynn is the latest to attempt the daunting task.

The first-year defensive coordinator knows reclamation projects. He turned UCLA into one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 in just one season. It was the 34-year-old’s first time coaching in college, and he hopes to use the experience to produce similar, if not better, results at USC.

“The one thing I learned fast is that you can’t assume anything,” Lynn said last month. “In the NFL, there’s a certain level that you just assume the guys know. But in college, you don’t know these kids’ background at all. So, I felt like it made me a way better teacher, because you really assume that these kids don't know any football at all and you have to coach the room as if they don’t, because probably someone in the room doesn’t.”

D'Anton Lynn talks with linebacker Choe Bryant-Strother during a timeout.
USC is counting on new defensive coordinator D'Anton Lynn to turn around the Trojans' defense as he did recently while at UCLA. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Lynn’s defense is built on obnoxious communication, shocking effort and attacking the football. He wants to “make a little look like a lot.” The scheme, linebackers coach Matt Entz said, is a loose 4-2-5 structure. There are multiple coverages in the secondary and a variety of front movements to create necessary pressure, but all the defensive coaches left room to experiment as they continue to learn about their new players.

“I’m trying to go into the spring with an open mind,” Lynn said. “I think you kinda just have to see, how do these guys adapt to the scheme? And again, we’re going to adapt the scheme to the guys as well.”

How many transfers will crack the starting lineup?

Lynn’s turnaround at UCLA came with many of the same players as the previous regime, but he won’t have to recycle players at USC. Seven of USC’s 11 incoming transfers play defense as the Trojans hope to plug holes left from the Alex Grinch era.

Safety Kamari Ramsey and cornerback John Humphrey could slot in immediately after transferring from UCLA. Lynn said their experience with the scheme will “help jump-start the spring,” as everyone else, from coaches to players, gets familiar with the new system.

Oregon State linebacker Easton Mascarenas-Arnold runs off the field last season.
Oregon State transfer Easton Mascarenas-Arnold could fill a big hole at linebacker for the Trojans next season. (Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

Inside linebacker, a consistent sore spot under Riley, could benefit from Oregon State transfer Easton Mascarenas-Arnold, who led the Beavers with 107 tackles last season.

Lynn and Riley stated their immediate desire to add size on the defensive front and delivered with 6-5, 280-pound defensive end Nate Clifton from Vanderbilt and 6-2, 320-pound nose tackle Isaiah Raikes from Texas A&M. The duo could team with last year’s impact transfers Jamil Muhammad and Bear Alexander.

Which sophomores are ready to make a jump on offense?

Not only are the Trojans losing their star quarterback, but they’re losing 74.5% of last year’s rushing yards and their two top receivers.

After an All-American season on special teams, receiver Zachariah Branch’s role on the offense should continue to expand with Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice departuring. Branch’s 320 receiving yards last year actually trailed classmate Duce Robinson, who finished with 351 yards and two touchdowns on 16 catches.

USC receiver Zachariah Branch cuts across the field.
Zachariah Branch, cutting across the field during a punt return against Utah, could become a focal point on offense as a receiver for the Trojans this season. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Both receivers might miss parts of spring practice with dual-sport commitments. Branch is running track, but Riley said last month he doesn’t expect the speedy sophomore to “miss too much football.” Robinson’s baseball schedule presents a larger challenge, especially since practices and games aren’t taking place on campus because of construction on Dedeaux Field.

Fellow sophomore receiver Ja’Kobi Lane could be primed for a breakout after starring in the bowl game with his first two touchdown catches.

Sophomore running back Quinten Joyner is the top returning rusher with 125 yards on 18 carries last year. The 5-foot-11 Texas native flashed his potential with a 47-yard touchdown run against Nevada last season. He and A’Marion Peterson will try to hold off Mississippi State transfer Jo’Quavious Marks. Mississippi State’s all-time leader for receiving yards by a running back will try to be the next of Riley’s transfer running backs to shine at USC, following Travis Dye, MarShawn Lloyd and Austin Jones.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.