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USC football mandates meals and missed-weight punishments in massive push for strength

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LOS ANGELES — Gotta have carbs in the morning, USC sophomore defensive lineman Braylan Shelby says. His definition of carbs is different than most.

For months, his breakfast has been the same. Egg scramble – not three, not four, but five eggs. Waffles. Yogurt parfait. Banana. He is listed at 250 pounds on USC’s spring roster, up from 245 in the fall; he really put on 20 in the offseason, he asserted Tuesday. He took pride in checking the scale, seeing the number rise, Shelby beamed.

Mason Cobb exhaled Tuesday, shaking his head, when asked about Shelby’s diet. Everyone’s diet around USC, this offseason. Cobb himself put on 10 pounds of pure muscle – one of the hardest winters he has gone through in his football life, he says.

“Ah, dude, it’s insane, bro,” Cobb said.

This was the directive. Since a disappointing 2023 season wrapped on an uptick in the Holiday Bowl, USC head coach Lincoln Riley has been adamant in a variety of public settings about a program-wide philosophical change to simply get bigger, particularly up front. And in private settings the past few months, the change has been grueling but welcomed, hearing USC players’ testimony on Tuesday. The program made meals mandatory, Cobb said; if players missed their target weight at weigh-ins, Shelby said, they’d be assigned plate-pushes as punishment.

Guys had to eat, Cobb said. And once you ate a lot, he added, “your stomach gets used to it.”

“I feel like they want us a lot stronger … just having that mentality, like, we gon’ go out there and we gon’ go mess something up,” Shelby said after USC’s practice Tuesday, energy popping from bulging biceps. “Like, we gon’ go out there, and we gon’ wreck havoc, we gon’ be there, we gon’ cause a scene.”

“That definitely helped, I guess, install in all our minds that – that’s the plan,” Shelby continued, animated. “That’s what we need to do this year. That’s what we need to change. That’s why we need to come different this year.”

Players, and coaches, often offered relentless positive reinforcement to media in the fall on the defense’s trajectory. Toss all that out the window. Toss in daily plates of eggs and waffles. Returning defensive lineman Jamil Muhammad, a steadfast team voice, minced no words: the emphasis on weight and strength was warranted, and needed last year.

Sure, they finished the year strong against Louisville.

“But it was still that elephant in the room, so to speak,” Muhammad said. “And we definitely knew it. Coach Riley knew it, coaches knew it, us as players knew it.”

“We just had to take it with a grain of salt,” Muhammad continued, “and take it personal to actually want to buy in and get better.”

The gains, via the eye test, are staggering. Muhammad is visibly beefier. Caesar Martinez, an assistant director for football sports performance at USC, shared side-by-side photos of freshman DL Jide Abasiri from Jan. 8 to Feb. 27 on Twitter on Monday night, in which Abasiri had gained 27 pounds and somehow looked five years older. Almost every returning defensive player for USC has gained notable weight – cornerback Jaylin Smith is up 10 pounds, defensive lineman Anthony Lucas is up 10, defensive tackle Bear Alexander is up 13.

“Built by Bennie,” receiver Ja’Kobi Lane cracked Tuesday on his weight gain, referring to USC’s director of football sports performance Bennie Wylie.

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Wylie has done his part, a true strength and conditioning veteran. But this is a true top-to-bottom organizational shift, Riley hiring D’Anton Lynn as his defensive coordinator in large part due to his emphasis on size up front, a focus that has even in part extended to searching for length in the secondary through the transfer portal. Mississippi State transfer cornerback DeCarlos Nicholson stands 6-foot-3; UCLA transfer John Humphrey stands 6-2, and is so lanky in-person it looks more like 6-5.

“I know we’ve talked about it some here in the first two years, that several positions have been pretty small, and that shows up,” Riley said. “And when you’re trying to obviously increase the physicality of your team, when you’re going to more of a professional-style defensive scheme – all that fits, certainly, to have bigger DBs.”

At the end of the day, as Riley affirmed Tuesday, this was the coaches’ vision. His vision, by proxy. And the effects, thus far, have been stunning.

“There are some massive changes,” Riley said, “in every part of the word.”

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