It’s not a stretch — at all — to say Caleb Williams will be the starting quarterback for USC this year. But the question Lincoln Riley and the Trojans have to answer is who’ll back him up: Miller Moss or Malachi Nelson.
Following the spring game, Riley made it clear. Moss is QB2.
“These decisions — the depth chart, all those decisions — don’t get made until later on,” Riley said. “But [Moss is] pretty clearly the second guy right now. That’s no surprise.”
Riley spoke highly of Moss’ performance this spring. He backed up Williams last year, throwing for 159 yards and a touchdown in five appearances. But with a highly touted recruit in Nelson joining the quarterback room, questions rose about whether he’d hold on to that role.
Suffice to say, he did enough to do so.
“I thought both those guys had very valuable springs,” Riley said of Moss and Nelson. “As I’ve told you guys, Miller’s really progressed and I think still a lot of room for growth. But he has really improved physically. I think that’s been apparent to everybody in the program. He’s throwing the ball better, he’s moving better. He’s very confident in his knowledge of the system and where to go with the ball and what to do. I thought he had a really good spring. He led the guys, he got a chance to get a lot of good work with some of the other ones coming out of spring, which was really good. He’s played well in spring.
“I thought he played pretty well in the spring game, kind of does what he does. He moves offense, he’s efficient. He puts the ball where it’s supposed to be, makes very few mistakes and has really kind of learned and honed the player he is and what’s going to make him successful. I’ve been impressed with him.”
Lincoln Riley breaks down Malachi Nelson’s shortened spring
Nelson was the crown jewel of Riley’s first full recruiting class at USC as a Five Star Plus+ recruit — meaning he was one of the only players ranked by all four major recruiting media companies as a five star. He came in as the No. 11-ranked recruit in the nation from the 2023 cycle, according to the On3 Industry Ranking, a weighted average that utilizes all four major recruiting media companies.
Nelson’s spring was shorter than others, though. He underwent shoulder surgery over the offseason, meaning he wasn’t available right away. Riley pointed out the impact that could’ve had on his star freshman. Instead of opting to sit out, he played on, which could help him in the long term.
“I give Malachi a lot of credit because a lot of guys with some of the physical limitations he had this spring, a lot of guys would’ve maybe tapped out and tried to save face and not even taken reps,” Riley said. “He started spring football without having thrown a football in months, which is not ideal. But I think we and he understood the bigger picture that even though he wasn’t physically in a great place, just to get the reps and have to communicate and go through it was more important. He learned, he grew a lot. He started to throw the ball towards the end of spring a little closer to what he’s capable of.
“He’s certainly not 100%, but really improving communication, getting more comfortable. I think he’ll have a very clear picture of what he needs to do better. He did some really good things in the spring game. He really did. … Malachi’s going to be a really good player. He’ll get a lot better.”
By enrolling early, Nelson had a chance to get a head start on learning the offense. Even though he couldn’t do much to start spring ball, he’ll still have a leg up by the time summer workouts start and into the fall.
That’s why Riley said he expects Nelson to take a leap by the time fall camp gets going.
“What these guys, when they come in early, what helps in the summer is they have a clear picture of what they need to do to get better,” Riley said. “It’s like, ‘I’ve been out there, I’ve seen a little bit of what it takes. I know where I’m deficient. I know the areas I’ve got to attack mentally and physically.’ And I think that kind of clarifies that picture for them, like it’s envisioned.
“For somebody on the outside, it’s like now you’ve got that target that you know exactly what you’re shooting for and you really can go get it over the next three months before we report. He’ll get healthier, he’ll get stronger. The knowledge of the offense will get better. I would suspect you’ll see a much different player when we get back in July.”
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