April 16, 2024

He’s the quarterback whisperer. The Heisman maker. The offensive mastermind. But on Tuesday, when USC opened spring practice, Lincoln Riley was the defensive observer.

The head coach who built his career as a quarterback maestro watched every defensive drill intently during the brief media viewing period of Tuesday’s practice, signaling a new era for USC quarterbacks that goes beyond just the field.

While replacing Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, USC is also making a change in the meeting room, where, for the first time since 2010 when he got his first coordinator job, Riley is not coaching quarterbacks. He shifted Luke Huard to quarterbacks coach after the third-year assistant coached inside receivers for the previous two seasons.

Huard will oversee the quarterback competition between incumbent Miller Moss and redshirt sophomore transfer Jayden Maiava while Riley takes a step back to manage a program in transition with a new defense.

“When you’ve done something for 20 straight years it’s a little strange, but I’ve enjoyed it, I have,” Riley said. “I feel like it’s allowed me to be more present in other areas of the program.”

Riley has bounced in and out of various position group meetings during the offseason. He’s keeping an eye on the offensive line with redshirt senior Jonah Monheim moving to center. The depth at tackle, where sophomore Elijah Paige and redshirt junior Mason Murphy are the only two other players with significant game experience at the position, is “a little bit of a concern,” Riley said Tuesday.

With almost a brand-new defensive staff installing a new system, Riley proudly said he has not missed a defensive install meeting this spring.

“I’m further ahead than the players on it, but I’m learning it for the first time, kind of like they are in a way,” Riley said. “So to be able to be there, to be engaged, to be able to have those conversations with our players, it helps me in my conversations with our defensive staff about what we’re doing or about strategy.”

Riley, who coached quarterbacks at East Carolina, Oklahoma and USC while handling offensive coordinator or head coaching duties, said he always envisioned hiring a designated quarterback coach, and there were even conversations about making the change last season. But the timing didn’t fit. Now after coaching three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, Riley hands the reins to Huard.

The former North Carolina quarterback, whose brothers Brock and Damon starred at Washington and went to the NFL, coached quarterbacks and was the offensive coordinator at Illinois State, Georgia State and Sacramento State. He joined the Trojans as an offensive analyst in 2022, but was promoted to inside wide receivers coach after Dave Nichol passed away. Huard’s experience coaching receivers in USC’s offense has been an advantage to his new proteges, Moss said.

“I love Coach Huard,” the redshirt junior added. “Obviously he comes from a very quarterback-centric family, so he speaks our language.”

After his record-setting showing in the Holiday Bowl, Moss is the likely successor to Williams, although the addition of Maiava added to the competition this summer. The transfer from Nevada Las Vegas who started 11 games has already impressed teammates with his strong arm, sophomore receiver Zachariah Branch said. Maiava threw for 3,085 yards and 17 touchdowns to 10 interceptions last year for the Rebels and split reps Tuesday with Moss and walk-on Jake Jensen.

Riley said he wouldn’t commit to naming a starter on a particular timeline, instead opting to “let these things evolve.”

Moss has already outlasted a coaching change and several quarterback battles to get his shot at his childhood dream school. He didn’t flinch when the coaches brought in another transfer to compete.

“People love to speculate about that kind of stuff,” Moss said, “but as I’ve said before, my job is to help us win as many games as we can, so that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

Moss has already proven his potential after throwing six touchdowns against Louisville. He chuckled when asked if his life changed after setting a USC record for most touchdown passes for a quarterback in his starting debut. People started recognizing him on campus, he admitted.

From working in the shadows behind Williams, Moss acknowledged it’s “definitely different” to open spring practice in line to potentially start.

“Excited to see what a team looks like when I’m able to really put my DNA on it,” Moss said.

Teammates commended Moss’ growth in leadership during the offseason. Branch, who earned first-team All-American honors as a returner last year, touted the quarterback’s consistency at practice every day, and noted how the quarterback from Bishop Alemany has grown enough to pull him aside for individual coaching points.

“Confidence is a big thing,” Branch said, “and I mean, he has the right to act confident.”

Whether he has earned the right to start is still up for debate. When asked if he considered Moss the starter, Branch smiled wide and shrugged.

“You gotta leave it up to Coach Riley. I’m just the receiver.”

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