On COLLEGE FOOTBALL
By rebuilding his roster with 26 transfers, U.S.C. Coach Lincoln Riley is ushering in a “different era” for teams that are willing to go that route. Stanford is not one of them.
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STANFORD, Calif. — Finding all the University of Southern California football players who transferred in over the winter was not terribly difficult on Saturday night. All you had to do was look in the end zone.
That’s where Jordan Addison, the decorated receiver who came from the University of Pittsburgh, strolled to twice after racing past the defense. It was also where one could find his receiving mate, Mario Williams, who caught one of the four touchdown passes thrown by Caleb Williams, his teammate last season at Oklahoma. Or Travis Dye, the slippery running back from the University of Oregon, who bolted for a touchdown run.
Even defensive back Jacobe Covington, a transfer from Washington who scooped up a fumble, raced into the end zone — only to have it wiped out because his knee had been ruled down after a replay review.
As U.S.C. (2-0) aims to restore the luster to its storied football program, the Trojans, who moved up to seventh in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, are leaning less on their history than on a modern college sports phenomenon: the transfer portal.
Few coaches have embraced it more eagerly than Lincoln Riley — himself a newcomer from, most recently, the University of Oklahoma — who rebuilt U.S.C.’s roster around 26 transfers, nine of whom started and many of whom starred in the 41-28 victory Saturday against Stanford (1-1).
Forget Student Body Right. This is Carpet Bagger U. One might say the school itself entered the transfer portal this summer, when it announced it would move to the Big Ten.
What is happening at U.S.C. is an extreme example of what the professionalization of college sports has wrought.
As revenues skyrocketed and coaches hopscotched across the job market to chase lucrative contracts — Riley, for example, purchased a $17.5 million home that overlooks the ocean in Rancho Palos Verdes — the N.C.A.A. rule requiring football (and basketball) players to sit out a year after changing schools became increasingly untenable.
The rule was slowly softened when the organization began allowing so-called graduate transfers. And in 2018, the transfer portal was created to ease the constraints that required athletes to obtain a release from the school they wanted to leave. Because of the roster crunches brought on by the N.C.A.A.’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility, as well as one waiver-free transfer, to all athletes during the pandemic, football (and basketball) players stampeded toward the portal.
“It’s like free agency,” said Taylor Mays, a former U.S.C. safety who played for six seasons in the N.F.L. and who is now listed as a student assistant at U.S.C., making him a rare holdover from Clay Helton’s staff. “It’s very N.F.L.-esque.”
There is one notable difference: no salary cap.
Winning big at U.S.C. has carried its own allure through the years. But when Reggie Bush was plied with cash and a house for his parents, Matt Leinart lived in a $3,800-per-month downtown penthouse apartment, and Joe McKnight tooled around in a local businessman’s Land Rover, eventually drew the attention of N.C.A.A. investigators.
Now, with many pay restrictions on college athletes wiped away, Caleb Williams is cashing in out in the open. He is pitching sunglasses, headphones, bottled water, men’s grooming tools and memorabilia, and has hired a strategic marketing and communications firm to bring in business.
If the N.C.A.A. has thus far fumbled attempts to rein in pay-for-play operations, it has placed some restrictions on player movement, as it did last month when it announced that athletes could enter the portal only during set windows. This will prevent a future case like that of Jarret Doege, a quarterback at West Virginia who transferred to Western Kentucky this year, but then, when he was beaten out for the starting job, transferred again last month to Troy University, where he played Saturday in relief.
“So much I can’t say — and some things I won’t say,” David Shaw, in his 12th season as Stanford’s coach, said Saturday night when he was asked about U.S.C.’s high transfer count. “We’re in a new era right now. We’re giving a lot of opportunities to our student athletes. The way the transfer portal works right now can create large waves of people changing schools.”
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But it’s a different era.”
Shaw added: “We have a different approach than our opponents today. We’ll never have 20 guys transfer in. We’re going to take freshmen. We’re going to take great students and great football players. We’re going to teach them. We’re going to develop them. That’s going to be our mode.”
The contrast was embodied Saturday in one player.
Austin Jones, who rushed eight times for 38 yards and caught three passes for 31 yards in a reserve role for U.S.C., had started for the Cardinal last season when they beat U.S.C. When the game ended, he shared hugs with a receiving line of former teammates.
“An opportunity and winning,” his father, Karl Jones, said when asked why his son had transferred. He noted that Stanford, whose identity had been burnished as a bruising running team under Shaw, had been having more trouble recruiting offensive linemen in recent years and reshaped its offense last year. “It wasn’t anything personal.”
What concerned Jones and his wife most was that their son was leaving without graduating; he is studying communications at U.S.C.
“Any parent would love their child to have a Stanford degree,” Jones said. “But his happiness means more to us. He really wanted to go.”
Once Austin Jones entered the portal in January, it was not at all like the deliberate recruiting process of a high school athlete making campus visits, hosting coaches at home and gathering detailed intelligence on what the experience might be like at a particular school.
“It was like speed dating,” Karl Jones said.
Almost immediately, coaches from Oregon, Washington, U.S.C. and others were on the phone. What sold Austin Jones was the coach who called from the Trojans: Kiel McDonald, who had arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier and who had recruited Jones when he was the running backs coach at Utah. McDonald had kept in touch with Jones, his father said, and made sure to seek out his parents to say hello each year when Stanford played the Utes. Jones committed within a few days.
Among the last additions to U.S.C.’s roster was Addison, who left Pittsburgh in May under accusations by its coach, Pat Narduzzi, that U.S.C. had contacted him before he entered the transfer portal. Riley has denied doing anything improper.
Thus far, all the required learning — the schemes, nomenclature, new names and ways around campus — has revealed a team not unlike Oklahoma in its five seasons under Riley: an offensive juggernaut that is separated from the nation’s elite by a leaky defense.
Oklahoma reached the College Football Playoff three times with Riley, surrendering 54 points to Georgia, 45 to Alabama and 63 to Louisiana State — with three different defensive coordinators. The last one was Alex Grinch, whom Riley took with him to Los Angeles.
Stanford rolled up 441 yards on a night that would have been far more uncomfortable for U.S.C. had the Cardinal not turned the ball over twice at the Trojans’ 2-yard line — on an interception and a fumble recovery by Mekhi Blackmon, a transfer from Colorado — and had a touchdown surprisingly overturned on a replay review.
U.S.C. also had 109 yards in penalties, and its offense looked mortal in the second half once Stanford used only three defensive linemen and invited the Trojans to run the ball.
Afterward, Riley — who did not allow Grinch to address the news media as he had done after a season-opening rout of Rice — liked that his defense was physical, that he played hard and that he forced turnovers. But Riley lamented many mental mistakes — a lingering malady from the Helton era.
How much of the game could be written off to so many new faces?
“We’re just not going to use that as a crutch,” Riley said. “We know we’ve got to get better. Should it get better as we go? If we’re the team we think we can be, then yes. So you definitely expect constant improvement, but I’m not the guy that’s going to sit here and say, well, it’s just not good enough right now because we haven’t had time. No excuses.”