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2023 Team Talent Preview: USC

Can Caleb Williams and the Trojans win the conference they broke?

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Tulane v USC Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Welcome to the 11th part (almost there) in our series looking at the rosters of every Pac-12 team as we head ever closer to opening day. The order is organized by my team talent rankings. For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal, 10. Arizona Wildcats, 9. California Golden Bears, 8. Oregon State Beavers, 7. Colorado Buffaloes, 6. Arizona State Sun Devils, 5. Utah Utes, 4. UCLA Bruins, 3. Washington Huskies

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 1,234.3 (2nd)

Quarterback- 126.9 (3rd)

Starter- Caleb Williams (99.3)

Reserves- Malachi Nelson (55.2), Miller Moss (40.8)

I know, I know. It looks kind of dumb that the reigning Heisman winner isn’t part of the #1 unit. Williams finished #1 overall in the rankings which helps validate them a little here. He has the highest PFF grade of any player in the conference and was the 5th highest rated out of high school of any of them. He’s the favorite to be the #1 overall pick. The reason they fall to 3rd is the backup QB position. Malachi Nelson is a 5-star true freshman. He may be great. He may not. If USC has to find out this year then it probably spells big trouble for their team.

Running Back- 135.3 (1st)

Starter- Austin Jones (90.9)

Reserves- Raleek Brown (88.7), MarShawn Lloyd (82.0), Darwin Barlow (63.9), Quinten Joyner (52.2)

Former Stanford transfer Austin Jones comes out at #1 overall in the talent rankings even if I don’t think anyone expects him to be 1st team all-conference. Phil Steele had him 2nd team and the media had him honorable mention. Still, he’s a former high 4-star who has over 400 career carries at a 4.5 YPC clip including while playing for some bad Stanford teams. He’s a high floor guy at this point and only started last year after Oregon transfer Travis Dye got hurt.

The high ceiling option would be Raleek Brown who was the #4 rated running back. At 5’8 he’s more of a gadget all-purpose back and as a 5-star true freshman last year had 227 rushing yards at 5.4 YPC plus another 169 through the air. He was particularly special in the bowl game against Tulane with 6 carries for 61 yards.

(Since I initially wrote this, it has come out that Brown is being moved to receiver this season although he’ll undoubtedly still get some carries on fly sweeps. I decided to leave him here for now since it would throw off the results for previous editions. If I had switched Brown to WR then Cal surpasses USC for the top running back spot.)

The newcomer is South Carolina transfer MarShawn Lloyd who struggled as a 5-star true freshman but then last year came on strong with 738 total yards and 11 TDs. Whichever of those three is carrying the ball they provide a dynamic weapon for USC’s offense.

Wide Receiver- 355.2 (1st)

Starters- Mario Williams (87.3), Brenden Rice (81.3), Michael Jackson (78.4)

Reserves- Kyron Ware-Hudson (75.9), Dorian Singer (73.1), Tahj Washington (67.1), Zachariah Branch (55.5), Makai Lemon (54.7)

This is likely a contentious battle between USC and Washington for the top wide receiver spot but USC’s tremendous depth barely won out in the end. First round pick Jordan Addison departs but the trio of Williams, Rice, and Washington all had 600+ yards and 4+ TDs a season ago as USC’s 2-4 receivers. Jackson and Hudson were 6th and 8th among the WRs in receptions respectively as redshirt freshmen. That’s a lot of returning talent.

The group is supplemented by the addition of Arizona transfer Dorian Singer who had 1,105 receiving yards last year for the Wildcats and was 1st team all-conference. USC already would’ve had an argument for one of the best two receiver groups in the Pac-12 but adding in a 1st team guy from another program pushes them over the top. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re also adding 5-star Zachariah Branch and high 4-star Makai Lemon just in case anyone in the above group doesn’t pan out this year.

(Plus the position switch for Brown mentioned in the RB section above.)

Tight End- 95.2 (7th)

Starter- Lake McRee (67.6)

Reserves- Duce Robinson (55.1), Kade Eldridge (44.2), Jude Wolfe (41.9)

In Lincoln Riley’s offense the Trojans haven’t really been using their tight ends very frequently. Incumbent starter Lake McRee had 10 catches for 106 yards last year and the rest of the position group had 8 catches combined. USC did add 5-star Duce Robinson in their 2023 recruiting class and it seems unlikely they were able to pull that off unless they told him he’d be used more extensively than tight ends were last year. Given USC’s receiver depth though, it won’t be a problem for the Trojans if Robinson isn’t quite ready for prime time yet.

Offensive Line- 521.8 (3rd)

Starters- C Justin Dedich (95.7), RT Jonah Monheim (91.7), Mason Murphy (73.0), LT Michael Tarquin (70.7), LG Emmanuel Pregnon (64.5)

Reserves- RG Jarrett Kingston (63.4), Elijah Paige (51.3), Amos Talalele (46.5), Micah Banuelos (46.1), Alani Noa (44.8), Tobias Raymond (40.6), Gino Quinones (33.6)

USC had one of the better offensive lines in the conference last year with one starter making 1st team, one 2nd team, and two honorable mention all-conference by season’s end. The 1st and 2nd teamer (LG Voorhees and C Neilon) are both gone but the honorable mention picks (Dedich and Monheim) return and should be among the best linemen in the league this year.

Both of that pair shifted around last year as Dedich was primarily a RG but started games at both LG and C due to injury. Meanwhile, Monheim was primarily the RT and shifted to RG when Dedich was forced to move left. The expectation is that Monheim will get to stay at RT this year while Dedich moves to center full-time. Swing tackle Mason Murphy who has 5 career starts also returns and will be the likely primary reserve.

That’s possible because USC added 3 likely starters via the portal. Michael Tarquin is a former 4-star transfer from Florida with 10 starts over the last 2 seasons interrupted by some injuries. They also bring in Washington State’s starting left tackle Jarrett Kingston who started his career playing inside and will shift to right guard for USC. The last of the group is Wyoming guard Emmanuel Pregnon who put up impressive PFF grades in his first season as a starter last year. This will be a strong group no matter what but if they are able to gel together they have truly tremendous upside.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 1,193.7 (1st)

Defensive Line- 217.5 (1st)

Starters- Bear Alexander (86.7), Tyrone Taleni (69.4)

Reserves- Jack Sullivan (64.0), Stanley Taufoou (58.4), Kyon Barrs (55.3), Dejon Benton (43.6), Deijon Lafitte (39.5), Elijah Hughes (39.0)

USC knew they needed an infusion of talent on the interior of their line and they went out to improve it in the portal. This spring they added former 5-star Bear Alexander who played in 12 games as a true freshman for National Champion Georgia. He has a chance to become one of the best DTs in the league immediately and is the highest rated recruit at that position in the conference.

Also coming in are veteran options Jack Sullivan (Purdue) and Kyon Barrs (Arizona) who each have 20+ career starts. Neither should be expected to make an all-conference team but USC is hoping they can at least provide a baseline of performance for a unit that needs to upgrade for them to make the CFP.

The primary returners are Taufoou and former Kansas State transfer Tyrone Taleni. Both are listed at around 270 pounds and so are a little bit more of hybrid DT/DE types but Taleni is more of the pass rusher with 5 sacks last season.

Edge Rushers- 223.9 (3rd)

Starters- Korey Foreman (87.7), Jamil Muhammad (72.6)

Reserves- Anthony Lucas (65.0), Solomon Byrd (61.8), Braylan Shelby (54.0), Solomon Tuliaupupu (52.2), Romello Height (49.1)

We’re still waiting for the breakout season from former #1 overall recruit Korey Foreman. Injuries have limited him a bit and his pressure numbers are solid but he has just 1 career sack after two seasons which is surely a disappointment given his hype. Still, he has splayed well enough compared to the normal learning curve of your average freshman/sophomore that he scores high in the talent rankings as the #3 overall edge rusher.

USC has options though if he’s still not ready. The presumptive starters per Phil Steele are a pair of transfers. Jamil Muhammad had 8 sacks while starting 10 games over the past 2 seasons at Georgia State before now transferring up to a power conference. Anthony Lucas is the one year younger version of Foreman as an almost 5-star recruit who played in 6 games as a true freshman at Texas A&M before transferring.

Other than Foreman the primary returner is Solomon Byrd who started 4 games last year after transferring in from Wyoming and had 4 sacks.

Linebackers- 193.1 (2nd)

Starters- Shane Lee (69.5), Eric Gentry (64.1)

Reserves- Chris Thompson Jr. (59.5), Mason Cobb (59.3), Tackett Curtis (53.5), Raesjon Davis (42.6)

USC returns both their starters from last year after Lee had previously transferred in from Alabama and Gentry from Arizona State. PFF wasn’t a big fan of either’s play last year as each received below average grades but at least each is an experienced option.

The primary backup for the duo was Ralen Goforth who has since transferred to Washington. To replace him USC brought in a pair of power conference transfers with Chris Thompson Jr. from Auburn and Mason Cobb from Oklahoma State. They finished with nearly identical talent scores here because Thompson has a higher pedigree while Cobb has been more productive on the field and is more likely to start. Last year for the Cowboys Cobb had 101 tackles plus 1 sack and 1 interception. Given that he represented the USC defense at Pac-12 media day it seems reasonable to assume that he’ll be heavily involved.

Cornerbacks- 326.4 (1st)

Starters- Ceyair Wright (83.3), Jaylin Smith (77.9), Christian Roland-Wallace (77.2)

Reserves- Jacobe Covington (69.4), Domani Jackson (57.8), Maliki Crawford (48.6), Zion Branch (39.7), Trequon Fegans (39.1)

USC lost 1st team all-conference corner Mekhi Blackmon who had 3 interceptions, 8 passes defended, and a miniscule 2.8% missed tackle rate. The Trojans did about as good a job as you can do replacing him in the portal by bringing in Arizona veteran Christian Roland-Wallace. CRW has 36 career starts and isn’t the greatest at creating takeovers (2 career INTs) but is a sure tackler and still puts up good coverage stats.

Returning redshirt sophomores Ceyair Wright and Jaylin Smith both started double digit games a year ago with Smith playing mostly out of the slot and Wright on the outside. Phil Steele has Wright getting beaten out by redshirt freshman 5-star Domani Jackson this year but Jackson should still get substantial reps even if technically coming off the bench. Washington transfer Jacobe Covington will backup Smith in the slot after starting 3 games last year for the Trojans as an injury fill-in.

Every projected corner on the USC roster was either a 4-star or has 35+ career Pac-12 starts (just Christian Roland-Wallace). It’s kind of hard to top that kind of raw talent and it’s not completely raw since many of those 4-stars also have a good amount of college playing time.

Safeties- 232.8 (1st)

Starters- Calen Bullock (93.7), Bryson Shaw (76.3)

Reserves- Max Williams (71.7), Anthony Beavers Jr. (53.8), Christian Pierce (47.2), Xamarion Gordon (35.2)

The strength of USC’s secondary doesn’t end with their corners. Calen Bullock was 2nd team all-conference last year after leading the team with 5 interceptions from his center fielder safety spot. He returns and is now just about a unanimous preseason 1st team pick and a potential All-American. Unsurprisingly, he’s my system’s top rated safety in the Pac-12 this year.

We’ll see whether Max Williams is able to hold onto the starting spot alongside Bullock. Late in the season after Smith was injured, Williams moved to nickel back and Bryson Shaw rotated in to safety and started 5 games there. Both Shaw and Williams are members of the class of 2019 and have 17+ career starts. USC should be in good shape as long as one of them is out there even though neither projects as a fellow all-conference performer like Bullock.

OVERALL TEAM- 2,427.6 (2nd)

I know you haven’t seen the score of the team that finished #1 yet but it was almost ridiculous how close the two ended up. This is much more of a 1b finish for USC than it is 2nd place. During the write-up for Washington I noted that USC and the Huskies were tied for the most players in the top-50 overall in the conference at 10 apiece. That’s still true. But if you wanted to make it sound even more impressive for USC you could say that the Trojans have 8 of the top-30 players in the conference. The Huskies only have 6.

If there’s a fatal flaw to this USC team it certainly isn’t on the player side. It seems a little ridiculous that the Trojans could have as bad of a defense as they did last year, lose a pair of 1st team all-conference players, and still rank #1 in the conference in defensive talent. That might tell you a little something about USC DC Alex Grinch. Fortunately for Washington, the Grinch that stole USC’s national title hopes is still employed down in L.A. We’ll see if Lincoln Riley regrets that decision and as a result ends up wasting his last year with the reigning Heisman winner.

It’s Caleb Williams’ stardom that makes it seem plausible that the Trojans could not just make the CFP but perform well when they get there. He’s a singular talent and is also surrounded by well above average skill talent plus what should be a very good offensive line. There is no excuse for this offense to not be a “destroyer of worlds” type operation unless Williams just gets bored.

The schedule isn’t exactly easy but it is definitely backloaded and USC should cakewalk to a 6-0 start as long as they at all keep their focus. The back half though goes like this: at Notre Dame, Utah, at Cal, Washington, at Oregon, UCLA. Can USC go 5-1 over that stretch? They absolutely can. Will they? That likely depends on the health of Caleb Williams. Getting all of Utah, UW, and UCLA at home though may be the difference that keeps them alive for the Pac-12 title game.


Top-10 Players (with position rank and conference rank)

  1. QB Caleb Williams, 99.3 (1st, 1st)
  2. OL Justin Dedich, 95.7 (1st, 3rd)
  3. S Calen Bullock, 93.7 (1st, 9th)
  4. OL Jonah Monheim, 91.7 (3rd, 12th)
  5. RB Austin Jones, 90.9 (1st, 17th)
  6. RB/WR Raleek Brown, 88.7 (4th, 25th)
  7. ED Korey Foreman, 87.7 (3rd, 27th)
  8. WR Mario Williams, 87.3 (5th, 29th)
  9. DL Bear Alexander*, 86.7 (2nd, 32nd)
  10. CB Ceyair Wright, 83.3 (4th, 49th)

*Incoming transfer