Swanson: Lincoln Riley, USC building trust – and winning while they do

LOS ANGELES — Football, if you think about it, is a trust exercise. A bunch of big, strong parts that better be in sync for things to fall into place on the field successfully and safely.

Usually, you have to build trust, but you can have earned it too. And with a reputation like Lincoln Riley’s, it’s obvious why 26 talented transfers trusted their careers to USC’s new coach.

Riley churned out Heisman Trophy winners and College Football Playoff berths in his five-year run at Oklahoma. His Sooners went 55-10 before he turned a destination gig into a stepping stone for a job in sunny Southern California, reanimating a program that had cycled through five coaches in the 12 years since Pete Carroll headed back to the NFL.

Who wouldn’t want to hitch their horse to a star like Riley, a brilliant 38-year-old whose hire was praised in every corner of the college football universe (except Norman, Oklahoma)?

“The Trojans have hired a head coach who will instantly transform their program …”

“… the closest thing we’ve seen to a sure thing in some time.”

“… easily the best hire of the college football offseason. Some may even say this is one of the biggest hires in the past decade.”

And now that Riley has arrived and gotten to work, he’s living up to his billing: “That guy has a wealth of knowledge for his age, it’s beyond incredible,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees said. “His wisdom out here on the football field is just surreal, so we just bind to that and what he brings to the table.”

Still, despite the hype and positive early returns, Riley doesn’t think his players are believing enough in what they’re doing.

Even after opening the season with a grand 66-14 trouncing of Rice and then sprinting ahead for a 41-28 victory over Stanford on the road, Riley has a read on some residual reluctance.

Never mind that USC’s new-look offense is averaging 8.62 yards per play – best in the nation. Or that the Trojans are totaling 521.5 yards per game, better than all but 11 other teams in the country (and exactly as many as Fresno State, Saturday’s opponent). Doubt keeps creeping around.

Aren’t the Trojans – who finished 4-8 last season – now No. 7 in the AP Top 25 poll, their highest ranking since 2017? Yes, but still the coach senses some skepticism.

Natural skepticism. And less of it than he expected in the early going.

“The buy-in has been what I hoped it would be and probably, up to this point, I would be lying if (I said) it hadn’t maybe exceeded my expectations a little bit,” Riley said Thursday during a video conference with reporters.

He said he’s more proud of that than anything so far.

And he seems to think the trust-building still to come, the chemistry and confidence that they’re trying to hurry along, will prove as crucial as talent or scheme.

TOUCHDOWN #USC

Caleb WILLIAMS to Jordan Addison and the Trojans lead Stanford 14-0

@On3USC #FightOn pic.twitter.com/4lEriX9C8G

— Scott Schrader (@Scott_Schrader) September 11, 2022

“When our guys trust what we’re doing and we don’t make mental errors, we do some pretty good things,” Riley said, thinking perhaps of the crisply executed screen pass that had Jordan Addison darting 22 yards through a field full of blockers for USC’s second touchdown last Saturday.

“And when we don’t,” Riley countered, “we don’t.”

They didn’t trust it in the second half at Stanford, to hear the Trojans tell it. After taking a 35-14 lead into halftime, they managed just two field goals.

“We kind of stalled,” quarterback Caleb Williams sighed Wednesday. “And it wasn’t because necessarily of anything the defense was doing … just (not) trusting what the coach is calling, trusting your checks, trusting your blocking keys that we practiced throughout the whole week.

“And so this whole week, we’ve been preaching trust: Trust it, trust what we’re all working toward.”

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Williams is more in tune with Riley than his teammates, having followed his coach from Oklahoma. Still, the quarterback described their bond as one that “has been building,” and Riley noted that even with Williams, even after “all the reps we’ve had together, it’s not 100%.” After all, “it’s hard to get to that point.”

That’s where the audacity of this exercise comes in: Riley is saying this about a 20-year-old sophomore who has completed 79.6% (39 of 49) of his passes for 590 yards, six touchdowns and no picks so far.

How productive might these guys be when they get in lockstep? How much higher than No. 7 will the new-and-improved Trojans climb when they really find a rhythm?

When those things happen, Riley’s stated goal – “to win championships, win them now and to win them for a long time,” as he put it at Pac-12 media day – starts to look increasingly feasible.

Trust and believe.