Oklahoma’s Riley rises in USC coach search

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley oversees an Oklahoma attack which averages 45.8 points per game.

He’s a former quarterback who oversees a high-powered offense, and occasionally even wears a visor. Could South Carolina’s next head football coach be a younger version of its last one?

Perhaps, given that Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has emerged as a candidate to succeed Steve Spurrier, who resigned Oct. 13. The 32-year-old Sooners assistant was scheduled to speak with Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner about the vacancy, according to an ESPN report, although several other candidates also remain in the mix.

One of those is interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who went 1-5 in the wake of Spurrier’s departure. Several reports have also indicated USC has interest in Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who went 28-21 in four years as Florida’s head coach before being fired following a loss to South Carolina in 2014.

But the most intriguing name on the list is Riley, who runs a version of Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense that’s averaging 45.8 points per game this season at No. 3 Oklahoma, which last week wrapped up the Big 12 championship and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff. If hired, he would be the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“If he were to get the job, I think that would be exactly what South Carolina would need — a guy that brings a little bit of a different approach, a young, energetic coach, and someone that might be able to offer a little bit of a different mentality when it comes to throwing the football in the SEC,” former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, now an SEC Network analyst, said on a conference call with reporters. “I think it would be compelling if he were to get the opportunity.”

South Carolina’s search has been complicated by the opening at Georgia, which on Sunday fired Mark Richt after a 9-3 season. The Gamecocks had pursued Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, but the former Bulldogs defensive back is apparently being lured back to Athens, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will become Georgia’s new head coach following the SEC Championship Game.

USC also has heavily pursued Houston head coach Tom Herman, whose Cougars are 11-1 and ranked No. 17. While indications are that Herman had interest in the position, Houston responded by offering a pay increase from $1.3 million to $3 million annually, and the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that both sides reached an agreement in principle for Herman to remain with the Cougars.

The Herman and Smart sagas have prompted a degree of consternation within the USC fan base, evident on social media and local sports-talk radio. Tanner said in a statement that he is down to a “short list” of candidates for the position, and held fast to his goal of having a new head coach in place by early December.

“The process has gone well by coach Spurrier resigning when he did. It has given us the opportunity to have dialogue well before the end of the season,” he said in a statement supplied by USC. “We have been very thorough during the search and now there is a short list. We are working toward the goal of having a coach by the end of next week.”

Former Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw, now with the Cleveland Browns, tried to quell fears with a Twitter post Tuesday night. “I trust the process,” he wrote. “I have to believe that (Tanner) is targeting a coach that truly wants to be a Gamecock for life.”

Muschamp, 44, was hailed for his work as a defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas. But he struggled as a head coach at Florida, where his successor Jim McElwain won the SEC East in his first season. Former Gators quarterback Tim Tebow believes Muschamp would be a better head coach the second time around, because of that experience.

“I do believe that Will will have learned a lot from just being at Florida,” Tebow, now an SEC Network analyst, said on a conference call. “I believe that he is one of the best defensive minds in football. I think that his time at Florida taught him a lot — it’s not just about Xs and Os, it’s not just about defense, but hiring the right people around you and being a leader of men. It’s about relationships. In his next opportunity, I think he’ll do a very good job.”

Riley worked seven years at Texas Tech, and was also offensive coordinator for five years at East Carolina, where in his system quarterback Shane Carden set a school record for passing yards and receiver Justin Hardy set an NCAA mark for receptions. He is in first season at Oklahoma, which ranks third among FBS schools in scoring offense, and where quarterback Baker Mayfield ranks fifth nationally in touchdown passes.

McElroy remembers Riley as the former Texas Tech grad assistant who picked up him at the airport when the Red Raiders were recruiting him out of high school. “I do think Lincoln is an exceptional coach,” McElroy said. “I think he’s done a really, really nice job, obviously at Oklahoma, and at East Carolina before that.”