SAN ANTONIO, Texas — USC added another key piece to new coach Lincoln Riley’s roster rebuild Saturday, as Rivasl100 wide receiver CJ Williams announced his college decision live from the All-American Bowl, choosing the Trojans over UCLA.
It was not a major surprise — since Williams decommitted from Notre Dame and took multiple trips to USC in December following the hiring of Riley, this was the expected outcome — but it is most certainly very significant news for the WR-needy program.
Williams — ranked the No. 46 prospect nationally — is the fourth top-65 national prospect to join USC’s 2022 recruiting class, along with Mater Dei High School teammates five-star cornerback Domani Jackson (No. 15 overall), all-purpose back Raleek Brown (No. 18) and four-star safety Zion Branch (No. 63), the standout from Bishop Gorman HS in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Trojans also have a fifth Rivals250 signee in four-star Bishop Gorman cornerback Fabian Ross (No. 237).
USC has just eight 2022 signees still, along with three transfer additions in TCU DT Earl Barquet, Virginia OT Bobby Haskins and Washington WR Terrell Bynum.
As for Williams, USC had fallen off the radar for the top local receiver until Riley was hired, prompting the Mater Dei star to take a fresh look at the program.
What he found was a new vibe and new direction that assuaged the concerns he had previously.
“I would say it was even before this Coach Riley hire. There was talks of a coach coming in, whether it was [Luke] Fickell from Cincinnati, or the guy from Iowa State, I knew there was going to be a guy that was going to set the culture and set the program back to what we all see USC as in the past,” Williams said. “That’s when I was kind of like, OK, maybe, with this new age of USC coming and all the hype around it and all these people wanting USC football to be legit again and at its peak performance, that’s when I really realized that USC is a possibility.
“Obviously, it’s my hometown school and it’s less than an hour from my house, less than 35-40 minutes from my high school. I needed to see them put a commitment into the football program — through not only a coaching hire but also through all the different things they’re trying to do.”
While Riley and his staff hadn’t recruited Williams while at Oklahoma, they made him a priority upon taking over here and gave him the answer he needed to here about why there were suddenly interested in him now.
“It was actually a question my dad had brought up. It was more appropriate that way, but he put the heat on him. We asked both [outside receivers coach Dennis] Simmons on his home visit and then on my official visit at USC, we asked Coach Riley when we were sitting in his office,” Williams said. “It was something I know they were kind of expecting and they had a great answer for it and they gave me a straight-up real answer, and I felt like that was the realness of the situation.”
As for the new vibe he felt from the program, one of the key conversations was one his parents had with new head strength coach Bennie Wylie about the accountability that was being installed from this new Trojans regime.
“That talk with Coach Wylie, I know he pulled my parents aside and he told them that this is legit. ‘This is what I do and this is what I’m about, and the accountability aspect, a lot of it’s on my shoulders,’ and I know they were convinced after that,” Williams said. “And like I said, on my official visit we went to dinner and every coach’s family was there. They were all intertwined. It really did feel like they were all just one big family coming unified.”
Williams is the only wide receiver signed to USC’s 2022 class so far, along with Bynum, the Washington transfer, and the Trojans will look to add another couple players at the position one way or another.
With top receiver Drake London moving onto the NFL, the latest star wideout to move on from USC to the league in recent years, the wide receiver depth chart is really wide open entering 2022.
The Trojans’ top returning wide receivers are Tahj Washington (54 catches for 602 yards and 1 TD), Gary Bryant Jr. (44-579-7) and Kyle Ford (19-252-2), while the rest of the group is unproven or uncertain.
Beyond Washington, Bryant and Ford, USC also returns 2021 freshman Michael Jackson III (12 catches for 116 yards), veteran John Jackson III (3-16), 2021 freshman Kyron Ware-Hudson (2-4) and speedy Texas transfer Jake Smith, who missed his first season at USC with a foot injury, at wide receiver, and tight ends Malcolm Epps (10-173-1 TD), Michael Trigg (7-109), Lake McRee (7-91) and Jude Wolfe (8-56). Former five-star WR Bru McCoy’s status remains unclear after he was away from the team all season due to a disciplinary matter.
As much as a roster makeover, though, Riley and his staff are trying to deliver a culture change at USC, and it was exactly what Williams need to see to come back around on the hometown school.
“My biggest thing is you can say your culture’s great, but if I see it with my own eyes that’s good. I can ask players that are there now and they can tell that there’s a shift in what they’re doing and the mindset there,” he said.
And to seize the moment, Williams capped what has been an impressive all-around week in San Antonio by hauling in the first touchdown of the All-American Bowl before heading over to the podium for his announcement.
So what is USC getting in CJ Williams? Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney delivers his scouting report after watching Williams star during All-American Bowl practices this week:
What impressed you most about CJ Williams this week in San Antonio?
Gorney: “He’s been maybe the most consistent receiver here. Super smooth, catches everything and if there had been one question about him it’s just that top-end speed, and it didn’t seem to be an issue at all for him. He’s been very, very good. There’s not a ton of room to move him up in the rankings, but he’s certainly would be on like ‘stock up’ for the week.”
He’s been on the national radar for a few years now. In what ways have you seen him develop the most in that time?
Gorney: “When I first had seen him, he was always a physical, good-looking kid, but what he’s really gotten really great at is just his route-running and ability to catch the ball. I remember I had seen him at a [Steve] Clarkson event, he had just come out to run routes for those quarterbacks about three or four years ago, he had some drops but looked great. And since then I don’t know if I’ve seen him drop a pass. He’s been fantastic, he’s continued to develop physically. Obviously very coachable, obviously very smart, so a huge pickup.”
With USC’s WR depth chart so wide open and a new staff taking over, what are the chances he could contribute early?
Gorney: “I would think very good. There’s no doubt that he’s going to be able to pick up the offense. There’s no doubt that the coaches are going to like him a lot. He’s going to gel with what they want to do on offense. One of the reasons why he kind of had reservations about Notre Dame was they weren’t throwing the ball enough. That’s not going to be a problem in Lincoln Riley’s offense, getting the ball into guys’ hands and letting them do things with it, so I think he’s going to have all the opportunity in the world to play.”
Williams has said he expects to be moved around the offense but see a lot of time at the inside Y receiver spot. How does that play to his skill set?
Gorney: “He can kind of do both. He can easily be outside and be a physical mismatch for guys. He can move inside and run those routes just as easily and go down the seam and all those kinds of things and be a problem for linebackers. He’s not just a guy that has to be inside, has to be outside. You’re going to move him around, you’re going to try to find the weak spot in another defense and try to attack it and he’s going to be a guy that’s going to be able to do that.”