USC QB Malachi Nelson intends to enter NCAA transfer portal

When he signed with USC last December out of Los Alamitos, Malachi Nelson was viewed as the natural heir apparent to Caleb Williams, a five-star quarterback that oozed upside, who seemed, at first, like the perfect fit for Lincoln Riley’s succession plans at the position.

But less than a year later, Nelson is already planning his exit from USC. The freshman quarterback intends to enter the NCAA transfer portal, according to a person with knowledge of the decision unauthorized to speak publicly, leaving USC’s future at the position glaringly uncertain.

For now, it will be Miller Moss who quarterbacks USC in the Holiday Bowl later this month. The Trojans have just one other scholarship quarterback on the roster in Jake Jensen, a redshirt sophomore who has never taken a snap.

Riley made clear earlier this month that he intended to look around for quarterbacks in the transfer portal.

“My goal right now,” he said, “is to always have multiple guys in the room that you feel like are starter-level guys that you feel like can really compete.”

This weekend, USC zeroed in on one transfer passer in particular, hosting coveted Kansas State quarterback Will Howard on a visit to campus.

But that pursuit might have had unintended consequences. By weekend’s end, the quarterback Riley once expected to take the reins was on his way out.

It hadn’t exactly been an easy adjustment at USC for Nelson, who arrived on campus shortly after undergoing shoulder surgery. The injury slowed his early progress, opening the door for Moss to seize the backup quarterback job outright in the spring.

Nelson, who signed as the No. 13 prospect in the 2023 class according to 247 Sports, played briefly late in USC’s season-opening win over San José State, completing one pass for zero yards. But he never saw game action again.

Nelson had originally committed to Riley at Oklahoma, only to follow the coach to USC less than 24 hours after Riley was hired. At the time, Nelson and his family were thrilled at the prospect of the quarterback staying close to home.

Riley was asked earlier this month about what the pursuit of a transfer quarterback meant about his outlook for the former five-star quarterback. He admitted it “hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest of years” for Nelson.

“Malachi is obviously a young guy, he’s got a world of talent, he’s working hard, he’s had a few physical hurdles he’s had to overcome,” Riley said. “He’s certainly going to get there and certainly has a bright future and has battled for a lot of things. So we’re eager to get him back completely healthy and back to where he’s developing on a really fast track, and I don’t think he’s that far away from it but that’s still been a little bit of a process.”

Where Riley’s future plans at the quarterback position pivot from here is anyone’s guess. USC doesn’t have a quarterback prospect committed in either its 2024 or 2025 class. Julian Lewis, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2026 class, is currently pledged to the Trojans, but he isn’t slated to sign for another two years, making his commitment hardly an iron-clad guarantee.

Nelson, meanwhile, becomes the second top-five quarterback prospect from the 2023 class to enter the transfer portal this offseason. The other, Dante Moore, left UCLA last month.

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