NFL Draft Daily: Can Lincoln Riley fix USC’s NFL QB problem?

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Lincoln Riley rocked the college football world when he left Oklahoma to become the new head coach at USC. With rumors swirling that Riley could be headed for Baton Rouge, his move to SoCal came as a shock. Before too long though, I began to wonder how this will impact the NFL draft.

I am fascinated by the draft and I always like to explore the ripple effects of moves like this. There is the obvious that Oklahoma is likely going to suffer a short-term setback while USC’s ceiling is raised substantially. How about the implications for USC’s quarterback production at the next level?

Riley is known as a quarterback guru, and for good reason. In a three-year span, Oklahoma produced two Heisman winners, a Heisman runner up, two No. 1 overall picks and a second-round pick. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts are all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. It is very early in all of their careers, but it is safe to say Riley turned a lot of heads with his ability to make OU a quarterback factory.

Riley went 55-10 in five seasons at Oklahoma. (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, there is a lot of chatter about USC’s inability to produce NFL-caliber quarterbacks. Not in the draft process, several USC quarterbacks have been first-round selections over the past decade, but when it comes to actually achieving success in the pros, the Trojans are surprisingly lacking.

Since 2000, USC has produced a long list of quarterbacks that played in the NFL. Most have failed to live up to high expectations. Carson Palmer remains the most successful of the group, and he graduated in 2002. Mark Sanchez is still the last USC quarterback to win a playoff game, and that was in 2010.

A closer look sees a list that includes Matt Leinart, who only started 18 games in his pro career. He was a top-10 selection. So was Sanchez, who won a ton of games early in his career behind an incredible offensive line, an elite defense and a reliable run game. He hung around a while and managed to finish his career with a winning record as a starter. However, he also threw three more interceptions than he did touchdowns coupled with a career completion percentage of 56.6.

Matt Barkley followed Sanchez. He seemed poised to be a top-15 pick in 2012, but chose to return to school, had a horrible senior year and fell into the fourth round. He started seven games in six seasons in the NFL. Cody Kessler was next and never wowed scouts. A third-round selection, no one expected him to be a Hall of Famer, but three years split between the Browns and Jaguars ensured that his NFL career never got going. He appeared in nine games during Cleveland’s winless 2016 season as a rookie.

Darnold struggled with turnovers, committing 76 in 47 games. (Wikimedia Commons)

After that was Sam Darnold. The No. 3 pick in 2018, he went two picks after Mayfield, which was a bit of surprise at the time. Darnold has shown flashes in his four-year career, but the Jets cut bait after three seasons and shipped him to Carolina. After a strong start with the Panthers, his production fell off a cliff as he reverted to his interception-happy ways, tossing 11 in nine games. He was eventually benched a few times before suffering a season-ending injury. Carolina will be searching for a new starter in 2022 despite having Darnold under contract for another season for about $19 million.

Needless to say, USC quarterbacks have earned a reputation among draft evaluators. The old adage insists we scout the player, not the helmet. However, I am starting to believe in scouting the coach, if that makes sense. Certain schools have a good reputation for producing good players at certain positions. LSU, Ohio State and Alabama all excel at producing defensive backs that succeed in the NFL. Penn State was known for a long time for producing excellent linebackers. Most of the Big Ten is synonymous with elite offensive line play.

It does not mean that other schools are incapable of producing elite prospects at that position or that any players who goes through these programs are immediately going to be better in the NFL, but we can usually point to certain coaches for being able to recruit and develop well at different positions. There is a reason Alabama dominates the early rounds of every draft. Nick Saban knows how to recruit and develop. Same can be said for Kirby Smart on the defensive side of the ball. Kirk Ferentz has a penchant for producing NFL-caliber tight ends at Iowa.

Bottom line, something has to give. USC has struggled to produce quality NFL quarterbacks, but Riley is known for doing just that. It might be a bit premature to truly award him that recognition given that his three notable quarterbacks are still just getting started in the NFL. Riley’s most recent project was also a failure. Spencer Rattler lost his starting job in October despite entering the year as the Heisman favorite. He will be looking to transfer.

However, there is no doubt that Mayfield, Murray and maybe even Hurts are better NFL quarterbacks than anyone USC has produced this side of Palmer. Caleb Williams also flashed some incredible physical traits and won a lot of games for Oklahoma as a true freshman in relief of Rattler. Early returns indicate that Riley is in fact the real deal.

Slovis is rumored to be considering declaring for the NFL draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

So how soon could Riley snap this streak? Kedon Slovis entered the season as a potential first-round pick. By the end of the year, he went the way of Rattler and lost his job to a talented freshman. That freshman, Jaxson Dart, could be Riley’s first protégé in L.A. If not, Miller Moss, who stepped in for an injured Dart to finish the season against Cal, could be in line for that role. Dart and Moss were four-star recruits, ranking 10th and 12th respectively, in the 2021 recruiting class, according to 24/7 Sports.

What is more likely is that it will take a few seasons before we really see the Lincoln Riley effect take hold at USC. The Trojans do not have any quarterbacks currently committed for 2022. However, 2023 five-star recruit Malachi Nelson has already flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to USC to follow Riley. Nelson feels like the first quarterback that will truly be Riley’s handpicked option. He won’t be draft eligible until 2026 though.

So, it might take a while, but keep in mind that Mayfield, Murray and Hurts were all transfers to Oklahoma. It is very possible that Riley goes that route again. Former five-star Quinn Ewers announced he is transferring from Ohio State. Texas is believed to be the favorite to land Ewers, bringing him back to the Lone Star state, but could Riley lure him to USC? This is not to say Riley will bail on Dart and Moss, but he also did not recruit them.

My guess is that Riley will ride with either Dart or Moss for 2022 before giving Nelson a real chance to compete for the starting job when he arrives in 2023. It might not be immediate, but it feels like USC is finally in line to change the narrative around their quarterback prospects at the NFL level.

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