The story of USC’s offense so far this season might best be told by starting with the man who has played only five total snaps. Aadyn Sleep-Dalton wears number 42, hails from Australia, and even if you’ve watched every USC game this season, you might have missed him.
It would be easy to do so; through the Trojans’ three victories that have kicked off the Lincoln Riley era, the USC punter has had only five punts, and three of them were in the fourth quarter with the game already well in hand.
Twice on Saturday night, Sleep-Dalton started to put his helmet on and creep onto the field as USC’s offense faced a fourth down near midfield. But on both occasions, Riley went for the first down, and Sleep-Dalton was called off.
“I had the confidence that we were going to convert,” Riley said after the game, a win over Fresno State. “Really, I had no hesitation.”
For a team with a plethora of new faces among the offense as well as the coaching staff, the one trait that appears to bind USC’s offense is that confidence. Whether it comes from nearly 20 years of coaching, one season of playing in Riley’s system, or spending the offseason seeing what this combination of talent and scheme can do in practice, every player on that side of the ball is overflowing with a certain bravado that’s only been emboldened by recent results.
“We expect to score every time we touch the ball,” wide receiver Jordan Addison said. “That’s the kind of offense we have. We want to make sure we put up points and keep our foot on their necks and keep going.”
In the 45-17 win over the Bulldogs, the Trojans scored 40 or more points for the third straight game and converted all three fourth-down opportunities while scoring their ninth touchdown on 11 first-half drives this season. The 152 points through the first three games is the most the program has scored in its three opening games since 2005, when Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart helped USC score 40 points or more in nine of their 12 games.
The hiring of an offensive-minded coach like Riley, whose offenses at Oklahoma have lived in the top 10 since he took over in 2017, meant one of the first priorities would be taking USC’s offense to a new level after the team went 4-8 last season and ranked 65th in the country offensively. Despite a new head coach and new players at starting quarterback, running back and wide receiver, the early returns appear to be more fitting of an offense that’s been playing together for years rather than one put together in less than eight months, stitched together by transfers from around the country and buttressed by a system that seemingly has the potential to elevate every player as well as the entire unit.
“I think with this team, with this offense, we have an unlimited ceiling,” running back Travis Dye, who transferred from Oregon in the offseason, said. “And I’m willing to go find it.”
IF THERE WAS ever an Air Raid bible created by the scheme’s forefathers and reinforced by the coaches it influences to this day, some of the book’s commandments and proverbs would read as such:
“Make the defense defend every inch of the field”
“Trust your quarterback. But only if you recruited the right one.”
“Don’t let your level of talent dampen the system’s biggest advantage: Stay aggressive.”
Such a book would have to be written, at least in part, by Hal Mumme, who is considered one of the godfathers of the Air Raid offense after he implemented it at both the high school and college levels in Texas and several other programs around the country. Mumme’s philosophy went on to influence Mike Leach, who was his understudy at Iowa Wesleyan, and later Riley when he became a student assistant — and eventually a wide receivers coach — under Leach at Texas Tech.
By the time Riley landed at East Carolina as Ruffin McNeill’s offensive coordinator, he had not just embraced the system, but began adding his own twists. He continued this approach as he became Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 2015, and when he took over as head coach in 2017, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts thrived in his system — with Mayfield and Murray both winning the Heisman Trophy and going on to be No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft.
“The first thing you gotta do is pick the right quarterback,” Mumme told ESPN in a phone interview. “And that’s something our guys running that system have always been able to do well.”
In the past, the Air Raid had been used as a mechanism to shrink the gap between teams with fewer talent and those with more. As the track record of Riley’s system grew, the system itself attracted talent as well as enhanced it. In short, that cycle created a perennial contender, even if Oklahoma never won a national title.
To Mumme, Riley’s teams at Oklahoma were some of the best versions of what the Air Raid could look like with an exorbitant amount of talent. USC, with its blank canvas and foundation for already being a recruiting powerhouse, presents a similar, a more tantalizing, reality. Not to mention the fact the transfer portal allowed Riley to hand-pick players who fit his system to manufacture success right away.
“If you take the system and implement it at a place like USC, where you’re going to have that much more talent, every play in the book becomes more effective,” Mumme said.
As far as what differentiates Riley’s version of the Air Raid from its predecessors or other coaches running the system, Mumme praises Riley for not just adapting the scheme to his liking, but having the ability and willingness to consistently design and attempt explosive plays.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that he’s better at doing that,” Mumme said. “It’s just that he seizes the moment. It’s not that it’s better. It’s just that he’s willing to do it. Not everyone is.”
Aggression is key to the Air Raid, according to Mumme, yet even more so as the talent of the team improves. While other coaches might coast on such talent or fall back on it by taking a more conservative approach in playcalling, Mumme sees Riley double down instead.
“When you take a guy like Lincoln and you put him in a place where he can get the talent level better than most of their opponents, rather than become conservative, they just keep adding to it and then using the talent,” Mumme said. “That’s how you get these explosive plays.”
USC is averaging 8 yards per play this season, good enough for fourth in the country, and it has five pass completions of at least 40 yards, tied for sixth most in the FBS.
Mumme points out that some of the ease with which USC has implemented Riley’s version of the Air Raid has to be due to the fact that last season’s offensive coordinator, Graham Harrell — who played quarterback at Texas Tech while Riley was there — was running a version of the system as well, albeit not as effectively. Still, receivers such as Gary Bryant Jr. and Tahj Washington, who played at USC last season, have been open about the fact they feel like they’re being utilized much more effectively under Riley’s system. Even offensive linemen are converts.
“I think when we installed it in the spring, it was just like, ‘What? What’s going on?'” said offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees, referring to a screen play that allowed Addison to score a touchdown against Stanford. “We saw it come to fruition, and it was pretty spectacular to watch. But yeah, we trust Coach Riley and his expertise. That guy has a wealth of knowledge for his age. It’s beyond incredible. So we really buy into that.”
IF RILEY WAS was going to copy and paste a version of his system at a new place like USC, he wasn’t just going to need talent. He was going to need a cornerstone, a second coach on the field, and a leader. In other words, he was going to need Caleb Williams.
As one Power 5 coach who has run different versions of the Air Raid put it, more than half of the system’s effectiveness relies on the quarterback, and by extension, the relationship between the coach and that quarterback.
“It’s always been a quarterback offense,” Mumme said. “I’ve always given them the ability to check off from goal line to goal line and most of the guys that run this have done the same thing.”
With Williams under center, the Trojans’ offense is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 13th in the country. Williams is one of only two Power 5 players this season with multiple completions on passes thrown over 40 yards downfield, and his QBR of 93.1 is so far the fourth best in all of FBS.
Mumme said the best version of the offense is when a coach feels comfortable enough taking his hands off the wheel and letting the quarterback act and react based on what he is seeing on the field. Getting Williams to follow Riley to the West Coast was crucial, but watching them interact now, finishing each other’s sentences in news conferences or trying to give each other credit for plays or audibles they called in game, like the one that opened up a touchdown run for Dye against Stanford, it’s easy to see they click in a way that is unique.
“We’ll be in situations where I can’t even hear the sideline at all, but they have some kind of connection,” Dye said of the relationship between Riley and Williams. “[Riley] gives one little whistle and [Williams] is looking over real quick, and I’m like, ‘OK, he’s over there playing Madden with Caleb.’ They’re really in tune with each other.”
Williams said the communication between the two has become second nature over the course of a year and a half of working together. When asked what exactly has allowed the bond to develop, Williams simply smiled and said that the two have “been through a couple things together.”
It also helped that Williams, like Riley, could do some recruiting of his own. Williams’ arrival set off the chain reaction that led to Addison making his way from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, giving USC the best receiver in the country.
“Playing in this offense now is way better than I expected,” Addison said. “I’m just having fun.”
Unlike Riley and Williams, Addison and Williams started working together only four months ago. Despite both growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, the two never played together or against each other in high school. Yet from the moment Addison touched down in Los Angeles, he and Williams connected — on and off the field.
“They’ve had really just fall camp to work together and you can see that’s kind of all they need,” running back and Stanford transfer Austin Jones said.
If there had been any doubt about Addison flourishing in an offense with a loaded wide receiver corps, the Biletnikoff Award winner has so far made sure his status as one of the top wideouts in the game remains. Through three games, Addison and Williams have connected for five touchdowns, putting Addison on pace to break USC’s single-season receiving touchdown record of 16.
The talent at USC seems to offer Riley the ideal tools for his offense, which has so far been as balanced (94 pass plays to 101 run plays) as it has been a highlight reel. Between utilizing weapons such as Addison and Mario Williams vertically and horizontally while establishing the run game with Dye and Jones, Riley has been able to implement his version of the Air Raid.
“With those players in that system, you’re going to be able to wear out defenses fast,” Mumme said. “I’m sure it’s what went into Lincoln’s thinking when he decided to go there.”
WHAT HAS BEEN evident so far is that USC seems to have found the perfect blend of talent and scheme, and it has been able to run on all cylinders immediately. By adding players such as Addison, Dye, Mario Williams, Brenden Rice and Jones to the relationship forged by Riley and Caleb Williams last season in Oklahoma, the offense has transitioned successfully from Norman to Los Angeles without much of a hitch.
Plenty of questions still remain, including the depth at left tackle after Courtland Ford was sidelined against Fresno State with an injury and Bobby Haskins was banged up following that game. Beyond the scheme, protection is the anchor that will allow Williams to continue to turn the space in and out of the pocket into his personal playground and perhaps vault himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
USC’s defense, however, remains unpredictable. It has created enough havoc to keep opponents at bay by way of turnovers (10 this season), as well as a handful of stops in the red zone. A bend-but-don’t-break strategy won’t hold up forever, but with an offense this potent, it could last a while, or at least enough to win plenty of shootouts.
“We’re trying to get to the point where every drive is six [points],” said tight end Malcolm Epps. “And we all feel like we have the offensive guys to be able to do that.”
Tougher matchups await, including this week against Oregon State, but as Jones put it Saturday night after rushing for over 100 yards alongside Dye, “the only defense that we feel like can stop [this offense] is ourselves.”
In the middle of the first half of USC’s game in Palo Alto, with the Trojans leading 35-14, one NFL scout inside the press box was heard taking stock of what Williams & Co. were doing on the field.
“If they’re smart,” the scout said, “every kid in California is going to want to play in that offense.”
That is, everyone except punters.
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