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USC turns its focus to Arkansas State

USC turns its focus to Arkansas State
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian takes to the practice field on Aug. 25. The Trojans will play Arkansas State on Saturday in their season opener. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

After two weeks of training camp and another of game-week rehearsals, USC finally can turn its attention to a real opponent.

The Trojans, ranked eighth in the Associated Press media poll and 10th in the coaches' poll, on Monday move into preparations for Saturday night's game against Arkansas State at the Coliseum.

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"We're not playing USC anymore," senior defensive lineman Antwaun Woods said, "so everything counts.

"The studying and the preparation get more serious."

USC will not resume practice until Tuesday, and the Trojans are eager to turn all of their attention to football.

Players spent the last week answering questions about Coach Steve Sarkisian and the controversy caused by his apparent intoxicated appearance at a booster event.

"The team really rallied around Coach Sarkisian, and right now we pretty much put it behind us," senior center Max Tuerk said. "And we're really focused on Arkansas State."

Arkansas State is the first of two Sun Belt Conference teams the Trojans will play. Idaho visits the Coliseum on Sept. 12.

Arkansas State finished 7-6 last season under Coach Blake Anderson and features dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten.

The Red Wolves don't play in a Power 5 conference, but that does not matter to the Trojans, quarterback Cody Kessler said.

"We kind of preach this thing of it's a faceless opponent," he said. "Doesn't matter who we're playing."

Depth chart

Sarkisian released a depth chart Sunday night that featured no big surprises and several positions with starters undecided, including tight end.

Third-year sophomore Chris Hawkins, who started last year's opener at cornerback, is atop the depth chart at strong safety.

Linebacker Cameron Smith, cornerback Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell III are freshmen listed as primary backups.

Senior Lamar Dawson is listed ahead of Smith, but Dawson's status is uncertain because of a rib injury.

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Kessler and other veteran players have been impressed by the freshman class.

"Normally, you get one or two guys who come in here and think they're better than everybody else," Kessler said. "Maybe their head's kind of blown up from everything.

"Every single guy that I've worked with or talked to that's a freshman are so humble and so hungry and they just come out and work every day."

Kessler does not expect younger players to look past Arkansas State.

"For the freshmen, every team right now for them is the Patriots," he said, adding, "They don't care who we're playing. They're coming out, they're excited, we could be playing the [Harlem] Globetrotters, anybody, in any sport, and they're excited to play in the Coliseum."

Junior college transfers

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr. are the starting receivers, but junior college transfers Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton will get playing time.

Whitney is listed behind Rogers, Hampton behind Smith-Schuster.

Linebacker Su'a Cravens said the transfers' experience have enabled them to blend in well.

"It's a little easier for JUCO guys to come in," Cravens said, adding, "They've got a year where it's not quite high school but it's not quite college, so they're more eager to learn."

Wheeler's role

Junior offensive tackle Chad Wheeler, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last October against Utah, is cleared to play in the opener, but Sarkisian is not sure how much he will be utilized.

"I think he will be able to play," Sarkisian said. "How much we play him is going to be the issue."

Wheeler started at left tackle in 2013 and 2014. Sophomore Toa Lobendahn played the position after Wheeler was injured and appears on track to start there against Arkansas State.

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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