USC’s and Lincoln Riley’s long, strange road arrives at field

After eight months of analyzing and tweaking and deftly maneuvering through college football’s first offseason of something akin to free agency, how was it going to feel early Friday morning for the new-look USC Trojans to finally be together at Brian Kennedy Field?

“I didn’t sleep very good last night,” first-year USC head coach Lincoln Riley said.

He smiled, but he seemed to be authentic in his anxiousness.

“It’s been a long road for this group to this point,” Riley said. “This group’s been challenged in a lot of different ways, and they’ve continued to respond. We’ve talked a lot obviously about how this roster’s come together, and I think for them they’re glad to have all their guys. Now let’s get to work and start building this.”

Riley’s longtime ally, USC wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons, called the 2022 transfer-portal-built Trojans “kind of like an arranged marriage.”

“A lot of these kids, we didn’t sit in their parents’ living room and make any kind of conversation as to how we can help their child grow,” Simmons said, “and on the flip side, a lot of these kids that we worked with in the spring didn’t commit to us.”

The Trojans’ rushed union — from Riley and his band of Oklahoma believers who joined his USC staff to former Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams to the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison, a transfer from Pittsburgh, to a restocked linebacker corps — appeared Friday to have entered a happy honeymoon phase.

The disappointment from the Trojans’ 4-8 record last season and the lingering consternation that defined the final years of the Clay Helton era have disappeared.

“Along with a lot of new players, there’s some of the best players in college football,” said center Brett Neilon, who is in his sixth year with the Trojans. “You got Caleb, Jordan won the Biletnikoff, you got Travis [Dye], you got Austin Jones, you got Brenden Rice. It’s really exciting in that regard that we’re getting a lot of players, but they’re also extremely talented.”

Friday was Addison’s first practice wearing the cardinal and gold — and Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer’s formerly retired No. 3 jersey — and the young man certainly looked the part.

“He’s a good player,” Riley said with a hint of understatement. “He’s very attentive. You coach the details and you’re seeing it show up on the field pretty quickly. He made some nice plays for us today. Obviously he’s a proven player in his past. He’s got to come prove it here. But for the first time truly on the field coaching him, he’s impressive.”

Of course, for USC to get back to being USC quickly, it’s going to take more than flash at the skill positions.

“We’re still in that we-gotta-prove-it stage,” Simmons said. “Do I think we have an abundance of talent? Yes. Do I think we have all the size, strength and speed that we need? Yes. But who we are as a unit and who we want to become as a unit is yet to be seen. That’s what fall camp is about. I think the strength of our team is going to be our toughness.”

USC head coach Lincoln Riley works with receivers during the first day of workouts on Friday.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

On that note, Riley said there will be no easing-in period for the Trojans in the coming days as they complete some practices at the Coliseum to get acclimated to an old iconic building that is truly their new home.

“For us right now, Year 1, there’s so much new about this roster,” Riley said. “We’re going to attack it and then at the right time we’ll pull off of them just a little bit and try to get their bodies back and start preparing for opponents.

“But right now we‘ve got to get USC right. We‘ve got to win our inner battle, and that’s our fight every day. As opposed to thinking of it like a marathon, where you run a little bit each day, our deal is it’s a fistfight every day and you wake up and get ready to fight again.”