USC visited the Coliseum on Wednesday night to scrimmage and gauge its progress with less than three weeks before the Aug. 30 opener against Fresno State.
Several players, including receiver Nelson Agholor, were held out to avoid injury, and to let coaches evaluate new players in game-type situations.
It was evident that the fast-paced offense still needs tuning before getting up to full speed. And the night included two tense moments — when running back Javorius Allen suffered a shoulder injury and when quarterback Cody Kessler remained prone on the turf for a few moments and then got up limping.
But Coach Steve Sarkisian said both players had been checked out and would be fine, and he considered the 98-play scrimmage a success because of the experience gained by young players.
“We’re going to need some, maybe not all, but some of these guys to be real contributors,” Sarkisian said. “And the only way that’s going to happen is by throwing them in there.”
Coaches and veteran players had looked forward to further evaluating members of a 2014 freshman class that has made a strong first impression.
“This is a talented group,” senior linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “They’re coming out here and showcasing their talent.”
Several first-year freshmen are in the running for playing time and at least one — offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn — appears on track to start.
Lobendahn graduated early from La Habra High and enrolled at USC so he could participate in spring practice. With senior Aundrey Walker and third-year sophomore Jordan Simmons sitting out spring workouts while recovering from surgeries, the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Lobendahn seized the opportunity.
Lobendahn continued work with the first-team offense at guard on Wednesday.
If Lobendahn is in the lineup against Fresno State, he would be the fourth freshman offensive lineman in the modern era to start an opener for USC, the first since center Kristofer O’Dowd in 2007.
Receivers Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith also have taken extensive first-team reps and appear on track for significant roles.
Jackson sat out Monday and Tuesday after a teammate stepped on his foot. He did not participate Wednesday, but he will be on the field for the opener if he is physically sound. Most of his time has been spent on defense as a reserve cornerback, but he will be utilized on offense as a receiver. He also returns kicks.
Smith is pushing to become the No. 3 receiver. The former Long Beach Poly High star is a two-way threat, but Sarkisian seems to have cooled on the initial plan of also trying Smith on defense for fear of interrupting his progress on offense. On Wednesday, Smith caught a touchdown pass from Kessler.
Tight end Bryce Dixon’s role increased exponentially when Sarkisian announced on the first day of training camp that junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was academically ineligible.
Dixon became one of only two scholarship tight ends on the roster. He will play behind fifth-year senior Randall Telfer, but Dixon’s pass-catching skills and speed make him a formidable threat.
Receiver Ajene Harris might be the biggest revelation of training camp. The former Crenshaw High quarterback has made tough catches and head-turning plays nearly every practice.
Sarkisian had said that receiver Rahshead Johnson also would get a look at cornerback but he has played only on offense.
Quarterback Jalen Greene is third on the depth chart behind Kessler and redshirt freshman Max Browne. Barring injuries suffered by either, Greene is probably on track to redshirt, but the left-hander who enrolled in January has displayed a strong arm, quick release and good decision-making throughout training camp. Greene was held out Wednesday because of an abdominal strain, Sarkisian said.
Linemen Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown are learning, conditioning and adapting to an offense that puts a premium on speed. Mama and Talamaivao have worked mainly at guard, Brown at tackle.
Offensive lineman Jordan Austin, an early enrollee who participated in spring practice, has improved but he underwent the first of two season-ending hip surgeries Wednesday and will redshirt.
Linebackers Uchenna Nwosu, Olajuwon Tucker and Malik Dorton are learning the 3-4 defensive scheme. Don Hill, an early enrollee, also is getting his first opportunities after sitting out spring practice because of an Achilles’ tendon injury.
Defensive backs John Plattenburg, Jonathan Lockett and Lamont Simmons also have made plays but probably will redshirt unless the secondary sustains injuries.
Browne passed for two touchdowns, including an 80-yard play with receiver Victor Blackwell. ... Cornerback Chris Hawkins intercepted a pass by Browne and safety Gerald Bowman intercepted a tipped pass by Kessler. ... Andre Heidari kicked a 56-yard field goal.