We wrote a few weeks ago about the idea that Lincoln Riley had some tough choices to consider at USC, relative to the shape of his coaching staff for 2023.
We specifically explored the question of whether it was worth keeping Donte Williams on staff, given the erosion of USC’s cornerback play in recent weeks, and in light of the reality that USC does not have a special teams coordinator on staff.
We were not fully convinced of what Riley and USC had to do for the coming offseason and the 2023 campaign.
Now we are. We think a special teams coordinator is absolutely necessary. We will lay out the case below:
CORNERBACK PLAY REMAINS BELOW-AVERAGE
USC’s linebackers made a number of big plays against UCLA. The secondary did not particularly distinguish itself, which raises the question of whether Donte Williams — who coaches the corners — is providing enough value to justify his retention on staff. He recruits well, but at some point, USC will need better cornerback coaching.
If Donte Williams is fired and replaced by a special teams coordinator, Alex Grinch would presumably take over coaching the corners. That doesn’t seem like an untenable situation or an unrealistic request.
SPECIAL TEAMS DISASTER VS UCLA -- SEE HOW WE GRADED USC'S SPECIAL TEAMS
KEY POINT NO. 1 ABOUT THE COMMITTEE APPROACH TO COACHING SPECIAL TEAMS
Lincoln Riley’s refusal to hire a special teams coordinator is connected to a belief that the 10 assistant coaching spots are better spent on coaching defense.
Consider this: If USC doesn’t miss two short field goals, it would have had a nine-point lead (or at least, it might have had a nine-point lead) late in the UCLA game. Having a nine-point lead instead of a three-point lead means the defense is working with a much greater margin for error.
The value of coaching defense better is lost when special teams foul-ups are directly costing USC points. The Trojans need an expert who will coach special teams better. It nearly cost the Men of Troy and Riley versus UCLA.
KEY POINT NO. 2
Riley thinks he and his staff can take care of special teams without a coordinator. This includes player evaluation. USC and Riley have not made great player evaluations.
Denis Lynch has been below-average as USC’s kicker this year. He has missed several kicks under 40 yards. Against UCLA, he missed two kicks under 35 yards which, as noted above, imperiled USC late.
Imagine how different the fourth quarter is if USC had led by 16 instead of 10, or by nine instead of three. Those were costly misses USC overcame.
The staff elevated Lynch over Alex Stadthaus. That’s a clear mistake in player evaluation. A true special teams expert is needed on this staff.
POOCH KICKOFF RANT NO. 1
Why is Lincoln Riley ordering pooch kickoffs?
POOCH KICKOFF RANT NO. 2
Why did Riley go back to the well on this against UCLA? Doing this once is bad enough, but Riley did it twice. Ridiculous … and very bad.
Riley infamously ordered a squib kickoff late in the first half of Oklahoma’s 2018 Rose Bowl against Georgia. The squib kick, just before halftime, enabled Georgia to get three points and build its comeback against the Sooners. UGA came from 17 down to win, helped by Riley’s awful kickoff decision.
ROSE BOWL SPECIAL TEAMS NIGHTMARES FOR RILEY
Between this UCLA game and the 2018 Oklahoma-Georgia game, what is it about the Rose Bowl Stadium which makes Lincoln Riley do dumb things on special teams?
NOTRE DAME NIGHTMARE
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Mason is having the best 2022 season of any special teams coordinator in college football. Notre Dame has blocked more than half a dozen punts and has come extremely close to blocks on numerous other occasions. USC better not punt much against Notre Dame. This is a disaster waiting to happen. We’ll have more on this as the week unfolds.
USC has elite athletes who can be lethal kick returners, but we haven’t seen USC score a touchdown on a long return this season. The Trojans are leaving points unscored by not having an elite special teams coordinator.
USC will soon join the Big Ten. Michigan’s placekicker, Jake Moody, made all four field goals against Illinois on Saturday. He has missed just one kick inside 50 yards all season long (one field goal versus Indiana was blocked).
That one missed kick was over 40 yards.
Moody is perfect from 30 to 39 yards (10 of 10). He is 5 of 6 on kicks from 40 to 49.
There’s no reason USC shouldn’t have an elite kicker who wins games instead of endangering games.
If Lincoln Riley and Alex Grinch can get transfer portal additions on defense, that reduces the need to have Donte Williams as a recruiter on staff.
The more one weighs the cost-benefit balance of having a special teams coordinator versus having Donte Williams on staff to recruit, the more I am convinced Riley needs to make the change for 2023.
If Lincoln Riley proved he was a better steward of a special teams operation, this change wouldn’t be needed, but Riley has not proved he has this phase of football under control. Anything but.