USC vs. Rice: Six things to watch for in Lincoln Riley's debut

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUG. 5, 2022: USC head coach Lincoln Riley watches his players warm up during the first day of fall training camp at USC. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)
USC coach Lincoln Riley will make his Trojans debut Saturday against Rice at the Coliseum. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Here are six things to watch for in the first game of the Lincoln Riley era at USC when the Trojans play host to Rice at the Coliseum on Saturday at 3 p.m. PDT (Pac-12 Network):

A transformed Trojans offense?

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws during NCAA college football practice
USC quarterback Caleb Williams transferred from Oklahoma during the offseason. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Over the last nine months, we’ve heard a lot about Riley’s brilliant offensive mind. Finally, on Saturday, we can evaluate what that means in practice at USC.

There’s good reason to expect fireworks. Riley added a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback and a Biletnikoff Award winner at receiver. He revamped USC’s backfield and threw in three more starting wideouts from the portal for good measure. If everything clicks, USC’s offense has the talent to be one of the best in college football.

At every stop in his career, Riley has tailored his offenses to the talent at his disposal. In seven years at Oklahoma, the Sooners never finished worse than eighth nationally in scoring. He’ll have new wrinkles ready to deploy Saturday, leaving plenty to unpack in the weeks to come.

Backfield shuffle

Mater Dei Monarchs running back Raleek Brown stiff arms a defender while running for a first down.
Former Mater Dei running back Raleek Brown could see some playing time as a USC freshman. (Jerome Miron / For The Times)

When Travis Dye and Austin Jones announced their transfers to USC within one day of each other, a two-pronged Trojans backfield seemed assured. But how that split works Saturday is still unclear. Both were listed as starters in USC’s initial depth chart.

Jones is built more for power, while Dye already has proved himself as a prolific all-purpose threat. Both are capable of playing three downs. Don’t be surprised to see them on the field together, mirroring what Riley did with two top backs in his early days at Oklahoma.

Riley said he could play all four of USC’s top backs Saturday. The wild card is dynamic freshman Raleek Brown, who seems sure to force his way onto the field sooner rather than later.

A deep connection

Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison catches the ball during Pittsburgh's football pro day
Former Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison is expected to be USC quarterback Caleb Williams' top target. (Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

No college wideout was more dangerous on deep balls last season than Jordan Addison. Addison scored 10 touchdowns on 40 targets from 20 yards or deeper for Pittsburgh. There’s no reason to think USC won’t use him in a similar fashion.

Already, Addison says he and quarterback Caleb Williams have a strong connection down the field.

“His accuracy with the deep passes, if you’re putting it on the outside shoulder, it’s gonna come on the outside shoulder,” Addison said. “Wherever he wants to put the ball, it’s gonna be there.”

Williams completed just 37.5% of his deep passes as a freshman last season, according to Pro Football Focus. A dominant downfield weapon such as Addison could take that part of his game to a new level.

Searching for sacks

Korey Foreman talks to reporters at USC media day on Aug. 4.
Korey Foreman talks to reporters at USC media day on Aug. 4. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

USC’s lack of a pass rush was a serious problem last season, and that was with Drake Jackson, a second-round pick in the NFL draft, coming off the edge.

This season, it’s even less proven. Auburn transfer Romello Height looks the part at rush end, but he had just three tackles for loss and no sacks last season with the Tigers.

USC desperately needs former top recruit Korey Foreman to make a leap in his development. But his progress was slowed by injuries in spring and fall camp. If he has a slow start, it would slow USC’s pass rush in the process.

New captain in the middle

Alabama linebacker Shane Lee returns an interception against Mississippi State on Nov. 16, 2019, in Starkville, Miss.
Alabama linebacker Shane Lee returns an interception against Mississippi State on Nov. 16, 2019, in Starkville, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

From the day he first spoke to Riley on the phone, it apparently was destined Shane Lee would become a leader on USC’s defense.

The coach clearly has the utmost confidence in Lee, who was a freshman All-American at Alabama. But since that standout debut season, Lee had just nine total tackles over two seasons with the Tide. When USC’s depth chart was revealed Thursday, he was listed as a co-starter with Ralen Goforth.

USC’s staff has been resolute in its belief that Lee will be a difference-maker in the middle of its defense. His debut will be among the most telling of USC’s transfers Saturday.

Managing the heat

Saturday promises to be a scorching start in USC’s debut, and that’s before its remade offense takes the field. Temperatures are expected to exceed 100 degrees at the Coliseum, and while players don’t seem all that concerned, USC has taken precautions for others in attendance.

Fans can bring clear water bottles up to 20 ounces into the Coliseum on Saturday, while free water cups will be available at all concession stands.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.