As the time ticked off the clock against UCLA, Caleb Williams could do nothing but watch from the Coliseum sideline. Backup quarterback Miller Moss approached to wrap his arm around Williams’ shoulder and tap the junior on the chest.
The moment was an unofficial passing of the torch.
Williams will not play another game for USC as the star quarterback will sit out of the Holiday Bowl against No. 15 Louisville, coach Lincoln Riley said Monday. While the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner has until Jan. 15 to officially declare for the NFL draft, he said last month it would be unlikely that he would sit out of the bowl game if he planned to return to college.
Instead, Moss can take the reins as USC (7-5) hopes to finish a disappointing season on a high note on Dec. 27 in San Diego’s Petco Park.
“I think he’s really improved as a player,” Riley said of Moss Monday. “I would have liked to have been able to play him a little bit more here in the last couple of years, but the opportunities that he has had, he’s played well and he’s moved us well.”
Moss, who played in front of third-string freshman Malachi Nelson, appeared in blowouts against San José State, Nevada and Stanford this season. He completed 23 of 32 passes for 309 yards and his third career touchdown pass, thrown against the Wolf Pack. He also ran for touchdowns against San José State and Stanford.
Riley said he anticipates Moss, a redshirt sophomore, to “be in the mix no matter what happens” next season, but went on to add that the coaching staff will shop in the transfer portal for quarterbacks.
“I like the guys that we have in the room,” Riley said, “but I also — you always have a responsibility to the team to continue to look at potential people that could come in and make our room better and make our team better.”
With the portal officially opening Monday, the shelves are stocked with strong options. Washington State’s Cameron Ward and Kansas State’s Will Howard were among the first to get on USC’s radar. Ward, who is looking for his third school after beginning his college career at Incarnate Word, ranked fourth nationally in passing yards per game this season with 311.3.
The landscape continues to shift as players pour into the portal. Oklahoma starter Dillon Gabriel, who has one year of eligibility remaining, joined the fray Monday. Georgia backup Brock Vandagriff, a former five-star prospect, also announced his intent to transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. He was committed to Riley at Oklahoma in the same recruiting class as Williams.
USC doesn’t have a quarterback committed for the 2024 recruiting class, putting an emphasis on netting a potential transfer to compete with Moss and Nelson. The former Los Alamitos star appeared in just one game this season, completing one of three passes against San José State.
Nelson was the top recruit in the 2023 class, according to ESPN. He has “a world of talent,” Riley said, but injuries slowed his development.
“It hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest of years,” Riley said, “and a lot of it [is] out of his control just trying to get back healthy where he can train and develop to the level that he wants to and we all want to. He’s certainly going to get there and certainly has a bright future.”
While transfers have been quick-fix options in college football, especially for coaches trying to engineer quick turnarounds at new schools like Riley, the 40-year-old coach said as the program progresses, the objective is to lean more heavily on the traditional high school development pipeline.
“Goal one here was starting to establish some culture and some winning ways and I think building a roster that could be competitive in the first couple of years,” Riley said, “and there’s a bigger picture, a picture that’s more zoomed out, which is I think is starting to gradually work toward building the program in a more ideal sense. And that for us is getting to signing full high school classes, developing the guys that we have in house, supplementing here and there with portal guys and then going on. I think we’d certainly like to get more in that direction and I think we have trended there.”
Riley believes the trend is starting to show most with the offensive line. The Trojans brought in three transfers to mixed results, but have six true freshmen Riley said will be “ready sooner rather than later.” Alani Noa played the largest role among the freshmen, starting in the season opener, but Riley singled out Elijah Paige, a 6-foot-7, 310-pound Arizona native, as a standout from recent practices.
“We keep stacking up the quality of talent in that room like that freshman class has, the quality of people in that room, like the character, like that’s what you want it to look like,” Riley said.
The Trojans will probably add one offensive lineman from the portal, Riley said, possibly two. The coaching staff may instead be focused on reloading the running back room through the portal after starter MarShawn Lloyd declared for the NFL draft Sunday. USC’s leading rusher with 820 yards and nine touchdowns will be unavailable for the bowl game, leaving the Trojans with just three available running backs.
Senior Austin Jones, playing in his final college game, will carry the load, Riley said, with Lloyd eyeing the next level and Darwin Barlow, Raleek Brown and walk-on Matt Colombo in the transfer portal. Freshmen Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson will also get to use the bowl game as their auditions for larger roles next year as the Trojans start turning the page on a disappointing season.
“In some ways, you kind of feel like it’s halfway the last game of this year and halfway the first game of next year in some ways,” Riley said, “and a tremendous opportunity for these young guys that are pretty exciting behind the scenes.”
(Staff writer Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.)
©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.