USC OL Jason Zandamela enters trasnfer portal, underscoring concerning trend for Trojans under Lincoln Riley

USC offensive lineman Jason Zandamela has entered the transfer portal, 247Sports reports. Though the move shouldn’t come as a surprise — 247Sports reported as early as April 11 that Zandamela was expected to leave the program — it’s still a significant loss at a position of need for the Trojans. 

It also hurts USC from an optics perspective. Zandamela — 247Sports’ No. 46 overall prospect and No. 1 interior offensive lineman — was the highest-ranked recruit to sign with the Trojans in the 2024 class. He was also the only top-50 prospect coach Lincoln Riley brought in entering during that cycle. 

Zandamela is now the No. 2 prospect available in the transfer portal, behind ex-Alabama and Iowa offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor. His departure underscores a concerning trend for the Trojans under Riley. 

Even with Zandamela in the fold, USC’s 2024 recruiting class finished 17th in the 247Sports Team Composite recruiting rankings. That’s the lowest-ranked haul of Riley’s career, provided he was head coach for a full recruiting cycle. It’s also just the second time since Riley became a head coach that he’s failed to sign at least one five-star prospect. Barring any surprise portal additions, the 2024 season will be Riley’s first without a top-50 freshman on the roster.

This recruiting cold streak coincides with the worst on-field season in the Riley era. With a former Heisman Trophy winner in Caleb Williams at quarterback and a defense supposedly revamped with a bountiful transfer haul, USC limped to a 7-5 regular season record capped by a win over Louisville in the Holiday Bowl. 

As USC moves to an uber-competitive Big Ten and faces pressure to make an expanded College Football Playoff, Zandamela’s decision further exacerbates significant roster questions.

Offensive line is a work in progress

It’s hard for a true freshman to start in his first season of college football, and there’s certainly no reason to expect that Zandamela would immediately be handed a prominent role in Riley’s offense. USC moved left tackle Jonah Monheim to center — Zandamela’s natural position — during the spring. That’s a hint the coaching staff was looking to take it slowly with Zandamela. 

At worst, though, Zandamela would have been a top backup option in a position group in sore need of more talent and depth. USC has to replace three starters along the offensive line after it lost Jarrett Kingston and Justin Dedich to graduation and Michael Tarquin to the transfer portal. Starting guards Emmanuel Pregnon and Mason Murphy are back, and there are some in-house options that have to step up at this point, but that’s from an offensive line that struggled last season. 

The Trojans finished the regular season ranked 106th nationally in sacks allowed at 2.75 per game — and that was with the Houdini-like Williams, whose escapability and creativity outside the pocket were his calling cards. Presumed replacement Miller Moss isn’t a statue, but he doesn’t come close to the same level of mobility or comfortability outside of structure (few do, really). He’s the type of quarterback who needs time to make reads and deliver the ball accurately downfield. 

If history is an indicator and those in-house options don’t come along, USC isn’t equipped to provide Moss with that right now. Zandamela would have at least been a nice injection of talent, a different face to try if there’s no development elsewhere. Now, the Trojans might have to lean on the portal as a Band-Aid once more this spring. 

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