March 2, 2024

After a mad-dash few weeks spent selling his refurbished plans for USC from living room to living room, state to state, it was a mostly quiet signing day morning for Trojans coach Lincoln Riley. No five-stars had flipped dramatically. Nor were there any heartbreaking, hat-related fakeouts. Eighteen letters of intent rolled in early, all according to plan, forming the beginnings of a class that ranked a solid albeit unspectacular 18th in the nation by day’s end.

Among those signed — eventually 19 total on Wednesday — none wavered in their commitments to USC. For Riley, that fact was nearly as critical as the combined heft the Trojans had added along their offensive and defensive lines. In the age of name, image and likeness and the transfer portal, commitments had come to mean only so much. Twice in three days, as formerly high-profile five-stars fled from USC in droves, the coach made clear he preferred players who kept their commitments.

“So many of these guys never blinked,” Riley said. “You can’t stress the importance of that enough.”

It had to be disconcerting then, by mid-afternoon, as Riley watched Ryan Pellum, his four-star wideout commit, stand at a podium to announce he was backing out of his pledge to USC and flipping to Oregon, the school that so often has served as the proverbial thorn in Riley’s side. The Long Beach Millikan High gym sat, for a moment, in a stunned quiet. At the table next to Pellum, a teammate’s jaw literally dropped.

Pellum had been one of the few top prospects in the state still committed to the Trojans for next year. According to the 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, just two of the state’s top 24 prospects from this cycle chose USC, while Oregon reeled in seven, including Pellum and the state’s top prospect, five-star Mater Dei defensive end Aydin Breeland.

It was a notable discrepancy, at a time when the 7-5 Trojans could use all the talent they can get.

But any concerns that might have been raised about Riley’s approach to recruiting Southern California were summarily brushed off by the coach, who said he was more focused on finding “the right guys,” not just local ones who had risen up the recruiting ranks.

“People have to realize we’re not in the Pac-12 anymore,” Riley said. “Those days are over. Look where we’re playing, look at the competition that we’re playing. Look where the majority of our conference lies. And that along with there’s just a lot of changes in college football in general where, I mean, no state of players is just staying home like they used to.”

The new reality awaiting USC would color much of the approach this recruiting cycle. In a lot of ways, Riley said, this class had come to feel like “starting over.”

With the Big Ten looming, Riley and his staff knew fortifying the Trojans fronts on both sides of the ball was of the utmost importance. And with new coaches coming on the defensive end, the focus was shifting to fit USC’s new scheme under D’Anton Lynn, which required a different sort of defensive player.

Namely, bigger, beefier ones.

By Wednesday, USC had checked those boxes to Riley’s liking, at least. Its class includes five offensive linemen for the second straight year, among them the No. 1 interior lineman in the nation, Florida four-star Jason Zandamela, who finished as USC’s top-ranked recruit overall (42nd), according to 247 Sports. On the defensive end, USC added six prospects to its front, among them a top-100 edge rusher in Kameryn Fountain and two sizable defensive linemen — four-star Carlon Jones and three-star Jide Abasiri — who are both at least 6 feet 3, 280 pounds.

Asked what the additions on both fronts had in common, Riley smiled.

“Large, large human beings,” he said. “People that are very tough to move and that are good at moving other people.”

While USC beefed up plenty on both lines, it added just one receiver (Sierra Canyon four-star Xavier Jordan) and one running back (Texas three-star Bryan Jackson); though, Mississippi State senior running back Jo’Quavious Marks announced his transfer to USC before day’s end.

At quarterback, where USC didn’t add anyone, plans are a bit murkier. Former five-star Malachi Nelson entered the transfer portal earlier in the week, prompting Riley to make a late push for Texas five-star DJ Lagway.

But in spite of several calls from Riley on Wednesday, Lagway chose to stick with Florida, honoring his yearlong commitment to the Gators, a level of devotion that USC’s coach surely could appreciate.

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