LOS ANGELES — Southern California is playing for two coaches this week.
There is Lincoln Riley, the splashy new hire tasked with restoring the Trojans atop their historic perch at the pinnacle of West Coast college football, and Donte Williams, the interim coach asked to shepherd this year’s team through a lost season after the September firing of Clay Helton. Williams’ stint will come to an end on the road against California on Saturday night.
While USC players insist they are focused on the game and ending a dire campaign with a win and good feelings, it was hard not to wonder if a spirited Tuesday practice was the result of having Riley and members of his 2022 coaching staff in attendance.
“I think the guys know what’s at stake,” sophomore wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. said. “Obviously going into this week, I think that they know there’s a change in the future, but everybody’s locked into now. Like I said earlier, everybody’s focused on Cal, what we can do now.”
USC (4-7) cannot qualify for a bowl after a last-minute loss to No. 12 BYU on Saturday, but Riley will still get a chance to evaluate the roster he is inheriting in meetings, practices, and live competition because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Golden Bears that forced that game to be postponed from Nov. 13 to this week, one day after the Pac-12 champion is decided in Las Vegas.
Riley watched practice alongside incoming defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons and strength coach Bennie Wylie. They got a look at everyone from freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart to redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa, who is eligible to play next season and has said he plans to return.
The next few days could give Riley a better sense of what players he can build around and what position groups will need to be…