When Lincoln Riley first sold Shane Lee on becoming a Trojan, the coach told the former freshman All-American linebacker that he viewed him as a critical piece of the culture he planned to build at USC.
Nearly a year later, the foundation is firmly in place. The rebuild, with an 11-2 start in Riley’s first season, is well ahead of schedule. And the senior captain, who could have tested the NFL draft waters, says he’ll be back next season to see it through.
“I’m staying,” Lee said Friday. “I just like what we’re building here. I’m comfortable here. I’m excited for what’s to come, and I want to be a part of that. I want to help build it and be a part of it and continue what we started.”
Others are still weighing their options.
Tuli Tuipulotu, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year, said he’s still undecided on whether he’ll declare for the NFL draft. But the defensive lineman had no doubts about playing at least one more game for USC.
“I’m for sure playing in the bowl game,” Tuipulotu said. “Can’t leave my brothers out there.”
After leading the nation in sacks (12.5), it’s unlikely that Tuipulotu’s draft stock would rise much higher with another season at USC. But he said he would weigh a return to USC against his NFL potential after the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.
“That’s something I’ve gotta consider,” Tuipulotu said, when asked about the NFL. “But I’m just focusing on the game. When the time comes to make the decision, I’ll make the decision.”
USC’s top wideout will have his own business decisions to consider regarding the NFL draft. Jordan Addison is widely viewed as a potential first-round pick, making it highly improbable that he returns to USC for a second season.
The more pertinent question is whether he plans to play again for USC at all. Addison, who was not made available to the media on Friday, could opt to sit out the Cotton Bowl, like other top prospects have in recent seasons.
USC guard Justin Dedich might be the last man standing on the interior of the offensive line by then. Center Brett Neilon suffered an injury in the Pac-12 title game that will sideline him for several months, while left guard Andrew Vorhees has battled nagging injuries all season and sat out the Pac-12 title game.
That leaves Dedich to shift inside to center, his natural position, in place of Neilon for the bowl game. After that, the USC fifth-year senior captain will have to decide if he wants to stay for a sixth season.
“We’ll see what happens,” Dedich said.
The scope of the attrition USC could face ahead of the bowl game remains unclear. But Caleb Williams, its Heisman-winning quarterback, continues to insist he’ll play through a hamstring injury that Riley deemed “significant”.
There’s no question about whether USC’s captains see any stakes ahead of the Cotton Bowl. Looming draft decisions, notwithstanding.
“It’s everything, man,” Lee said. “You definitely want to finish off on the right note, especially because we’re here to start something. This is the foundation of what we’re trying to build, the foundation of USC’s culture.
“To finish off means everything. We have to finish.”