USC football loses more players to transfer portal

Isaiah Raikes’ nameplate over his locker barely had settled in, but USC’s latest great hope at defensive line already is looking for a new home.

Raikes and defensive back Tre’Quon Fegans were removed from USC’s online roster this weekend amid their plans to enter the transfer portal when it opens Monday. As players flirted with, backed out of and entered the portal, discussion around the spring transfer window lingered over the final two weeks of USC’s spring practices, but coach Lincoln Riley emphasized that if the Trojans “lose a couple of guys, then we’ll replace them.”

USC also lost freshman offensive lineman Jason Zandamela to the portal this week, but Raikes’ departure leaves a more urgent 6-foot-2, 320-pound hole in the interior of the defensive line. The nose tackle from Texas A&M was expected to anchor the defensive front along with Bear Alexander.

The Trojans could turn to another transfer to lead the defensive bounce back as former Vanderbilt captain Nate Clifton has emerged as a steady force, Riley said. The 6-foot-4, 289-pound defensive lineman led the Commodores in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (5.5) with 30 tackles while starting 12 games last season.

“Once we got a chance to lay out our situation to him and him to us, it was an immediate fit, like no-brainer for both sides and that one just feels great,” Riley said of Clifton. “He’s been a good presence in our locker room, a really good presence on the field.”

Behind Clifton, sophomore Elijah Hughes is continuing to build on a promising freshman campaign that included six tackles in seven games, while defensive end Devan Thompkins is training at both the edge and in the interior. Freshman Jide Abasiri, a 6-foot-5, 291-pound former four-star prospect, has impressed coaches.

But losing a key piece of the interior defensive line will force the Trojans to search for another player amid Riley’s reservations about depth at the position.

As transfers have become ubiquitous in college football, Riley said coaching staffs are forced to evaluate their priorities while combing through the portal. If the objective is to simply “win the recruiting battle,” then over-recruiting a highly ranked player just to score a headliner could quickly backfire, especially when transfers are forced to make quick decisions about their futures compared to a high school recruit’s process that could stretch for years.

“You try to get to know them as fast as you can, but this happens so quickly that some of it you’re going to learn a little bit on the run,” Riley said of potential transfers. “We’ve been right a whole lot more in the portal than we’ve been wrong, but we’ve had some that, yeah, if we had a chance to go back and do it again, we wouldn’t have made those mistakes. But that’s obviously part of the reason our climb and aim is to get less and less reliant on [the portal].”

Fegans, who transferred from Alabama before last season, had nine tackles in limited playing time. He was in the mix to compete for an opening in the secondary — where the Trojans have to replace starters at four of five defensive back positions — but was at risk getting buried again in a crowded room.

In addition to returner Jacobe Covington, freshman cornerback Marcelles Williams is emerging as a spring camp star, Riley said. The younger brother of former USC safety Max Williams, Marcelles has been “unusually consistent” for a freshman while also making explosive plays like interceptions during a team period this week and another pick during a scrimmage Saturday.

“He’s a confident kid and he’s been around this program a lot,” Riley said. “I think that’s helped him to come in not really wide-eyed, and just ready to come in and compete. And obviously from his family history, I think there’s probably an understanding of kind of what it really takes at this level.”

Cornerback John Humphrey was establishing himself as a potential impact player but will miss the rest of the spring because of a recent medical procedure, Riley said. The UCLA transfer from Pasadena, who followed Lynn across town, is not expected to miss time this fall.

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