Amid portal uncertainty, Lincoln Riley keeps one top lineman and loses another

After 48 hours of nagging questions and will-he-or-won’t-he uncertainty, Bear Alexander emerged from the tunnel under the John McKay Center in full pads and helmet, his mere presence a sigh of relief after a dramatic stretch of spring at USC.

Those previous two days had been defined by dizzying speculation surrounding the standout defensive tackle’s future at the school. Alexander seemed all but bound for the transfer portal on Tuesday morning, before a final pitch from USC coaches Wednesday shifted those sentiments. By Thursday afternoon, it was as if nothing had ever happened behind the scenes.

“Bear is doing fine,” coach Lincoln Riley said with a shrug. “I know there was a bunch of stuff on the outside. I know he felt the need to address it because there was so much on the outside, which kind of starts anywhere and everywhere in this day and age.”

With the advent of the transfer portal, the increasing influence of NIL and the rampant regularity of tampering across the sport, this sort of portal chaos and roster uncertainty has become a standard part of the calendar for college coaches. Players are now constantly reevaluating their trajectories, while coaches are focusing more than ever on simply retaining them.

“In past years, maybe these [conversations] would have happened more completely after the spring,” Riley said. “With the transfer portal, you find yourself having some more big-picture conversations with these guys to discuss what you see in them as a coach, what you see potentially their role being both now and in the future. But at the end of the day, I mean, it’s USC. 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.”

For Alexander, the conversation was apparently convincing enough.

“I’m not crystal clear on all of the noise or what any of this portal mess is about,” Alexander said in a post on X. “I’m here to finish what I started and that’s chasing a natty here at USC with my teammates.”

The dust had barely settled on Alexander’s drama before another player declared his plans to enter the portal. Freshman center Jason Zandamela was one of the highest touted players in USC’s 2024 recruiting class, but lasted just a few months on campus before deciding to transfer.

Riley pointed to Zandamela’s “very unique background” as the main factor in his decision to leave so quickly. But the coach didn’t seem all that concerned about losing one of the top prospects from his previous class.

“Jason wasn’t a factor to play this year for us,” Riley said. “A good young player, but a long ways away from being ready to help us.”

Alexander, on the other hand, is expected to be a cornerstone of USC’s rebuilt defense under new coordinator D’Anton Lynn. He’s spent much of the spring sidelined with an injury, which has only highlighted how thin USC would be up front without him.

Defensive line coach Shaun Nua said that he “feels good” about that depth up front. But as of Thursday, the rest of the Trojans’ defensive interior behind Alexander consisted of two experienced, but largely unproven newcomers in Nate Clifton (Vanderbilt) and Isaiah Raikes (Texas A&M) and a host of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores behind them.

That made the prospect of Alexander’s potential transfer seem especially bleak. But in spite of the injury and his brief flirtation with the portal, Riley assured that Alexander has been “really more invested in this team than maybe at any point last year.”

How much he invests in his development this offseason will be critical to the trajectory of the Trojans defense. His first season at USC certainly offered plenty of glimpses of game-wrecking potential, but Riley is expecting more from Alexander as a junior.

“The great ones, it’s less flashes and more consistent,” Riley said. “He has that ability.”

And now, there should be no question about his availability, either. Though, that won’t stop Riley from sifting through the portal for other options up front come next Monday, when the transfer window opens.

“We might,” Riley said when asked about pursuing more defensive linemen. “We’ll certainly look and evaluate the spring. That’s one of those positions you never completely shut the door on.”

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