Lincoln Riley brushes off departure of Jason Zandamela, USC’s highest-rated 2024 commit (2024)

LOS ANGELES — On Early Signing Day in late December, when USC football coach Lincoln Riley strode to a podium inside Heritage Hall with bright eyes and a smile on his face, some of his first praises sung were of this recruiting class’ offensive line.

Building recruiting depth on the offensive front was a “focus point,” Riley said then, voice humming with pride on USC’s 2024 class. And it was a target in Riley’s rebuild of USC’s program as a whole, ever since he’d arrived in 2021, staring at a complete dearth of young talent among USC’s O-line reserves.

Just four months after that press conference, the main focus of that focus point is gone. On Thursday afternoon, On3 reported that freshman center Jason Zandamela was entering the transfer portal, news confirmed by Riley after USC’s spring practice later in the day. Suddenly, one of USC’s top-ranked commits in the class of 2024 – regardless of position – is exiting before spring football had even run its course, an inarguable blow to the depth and strength of the young group Riley so profusely praised in late December.

On Thursday, though, Riley shrugged off Zandamela’s importance to USC’s immediate future, emphasizing his confidence in returning lineman Jonah Monheim and Kilian O’Connor at center in 2024.

“Jason wasn’t a factor to play this year for us,” Riley said. “A good young player, but it’s, a long ways away from being ready to help us. So, yeah, we’ll certainly be looking into the portal, that hopefully – and we will – replace that spot, and off we go.”

Off we go. A hint of bravado crept into his words, a bravado that had swelled just a minute earlier, discussing player retention in the transfer portal era.

“I mean, it’s USC,” Riley said. “Like, you’re not going to beg people to be here. It’s just, I mean, for every guy that leaves, there’s going to be a line of 100 people that would die to take that spot in a heartbeat.”

Zandamela’s particular personal circ*mstances, Riley hinted Thursday, played a large part in his decision to transfer; he’s a player with a “very unique background,” as Riley put it, hailing from Mozambique, Africa.

But if not strictlybegging, USC has exhausted notable effort to try to retain talent ever since the end of last season. Back in December, when now-Wisconsin linebacker Tackett Curtis was deciding to enter the portal, a source with knowledge of the situation told the Southern California News Group that staff had multiple meetings to try to keep him at USC. And this past week, in a storm of will-he-won’t-he rumors around the transfer portal, key defensive lineman Bear Alexander confirmed he was staying at USC – but in the 24 hours beforehand, a source told the SCNG, Riley and Henderson had a call with Alexander and his family to lay out the program’s plans for him.

“He didn’t want to lose Bear,” the source said. “It was just clear as day.”

On Thursday, Riley brushed off, too, any notion that he had to convince Alexander to stay or needed to have an in-depth conversation with him.

“He’s got a great heart,” Riley said of Alexander’s potential and growth as a leader. “I think he’s really more invested in this team than maybe at any point last year, when he was just getting in and it was just a rush to learn it and to be ready to play. He’s grabbing young guys and bringing them over to his house. He’s trying to push.”

“He doesn’t want to just be a good player,” Riley continued. “He wants to leave a mark on this place.”

In a few days, when the transfer portal re-opens for the spring window, Riley will again become a recruiter – needing to fill Zandamela’s sudden void at center, needing to fill in depth at offensive tackle, needing another potential piece in the wide receiver and defensive line rooms. But as USC continues to right its trajectory entering the Big Ten – in personnel, coaching staff and in NIL situation – Riley might be forced into another situation as a retainer.

“I don’t get too overly emotional one way or another when we have a guy that’s thinking about moving on,” Riley said. “This is not going to be the right fit for every single player. We get that. This is a special place, it’s a hard place to – you can’t make somebody fit into it, and that’s okay.”

Lincoln Riley brushes off departure of Jason Zandamela, USC’s highest-rated 2024 commit (2024)
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