Youth has not been served for USC this season

Youth has not been served for USC this season
Teammates swarm USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) after scoring against Arizona State at the Coliseum on Oct. 1. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

USC's offensive players hooted as Vavae Malepeai barrelled through a hole, put both hands around the ball and lowered his shoulder into a safety downfield.

It was a rare sight — Malepeai is a freshman. And freshmen have been a reclusive sort at USC this season.


Last season, breakout rookies dotted the depth chart, mostly on defense.

This season, with USC's roster loaded with young players, the list empty. No true freshman has started a game. Only six have played: receiver Michael Pittman, linebacker Jordan Iosefa, cornerbacks Jack Jones and Keyshawn Young and defensive ends Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku Jr.

"When we first got here, and when the scholarships were depleted, we had to play who we had," USC Coach Clay Helton said. "And now some guys are getting to grow up a little bit. And I think it's because of the depth."

Helton said the development was healthy. But no freshman has played well enough to oblige the coaching staff to keep him on the field. In 2014, JuJu Smith-Schuster and receiver and cornerback Adoree' Jackson demanded more time with their performances. Last season, Ronald Jones II became the leading rusher, the first USC freshman to do so.

Helton signaled that era may be waning. He cited USC's receiving corps as an example. The Trojans recruited five freshmen receivers, but only Pittman has seen the field. He has carved out a role for himself on special teams and caught two passes against Arizona State.

"There's a ton of talent," Helton said. "All five wideouts really jump out to me right now. I think we've got a really bright future."

But, he added, USC has upperclassmen ahead on the depth chart.

The promise of early playing time buoyed the Trojans' hobbled recruiting efforts while they were under NCAA sanctions. As recently as last season, Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin played significant time at linebacker as freshmen. Marvell Tell III did so at safety, as did Iman Marshall at cornerback. Before that, linemen Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao started in their first season.

Pittman indicated that the calculus for recruits has changed.

"I kind of knew what we had coming in," Pittman said. "We had four senior outside wideouts.

"To come in here and get reps, I feel really blessed."

One down, one up

Running back Justin Davis is doubtful to play against Arizona after sustaining a high ankle sprain last weekend against Colorado.

"Right now, if I had to guess, probably not going to play," Helton said.


Helton hopes that Davis can return for USC's following game against California two weeks from Thursday.

Right tackle Zach Banner received better news. He returned to practice Tuesday and participated in the first half of the session.

He reported that his sprained ankle has improved. Banner has missed the last two games with the injury, though he participated in warmups against Arizona State. After warmups, he said, Helton told him that Banner was favoring the leg, and he was shut down to fully heal.

"I was hungry to get back," Banner said. "You have to be smart with it or else you're going to ruin things for this season, for the future."

Cravens talks concussions

Former Trojan and current Washington Redskins rookie Su'a Cravens said in a Snapchat post that a recent brain injury had forced him to wear glasses.

"Due to my concussion, my eyes have lost the memory to keep track of moving objects," a spectacled Cravens said in a post that was subsequently deleted. "So I have to wear these for the rest of my life."

A report by CSN Mid-Atlantic, citing an anonymous source, disputed Cravens' claim.

Quick hits

Linebacker Michael Hutchings (partially separated shoulder shoulder) was limited in practice. Iosefa took repetitions at starting middle linebacker in Hutchings' absence. … Jonathan Lockett (shoulder sprain) and linebacker John Houston Jr. (knee) returned to practice. ... Jabari Ruffin cleared concussion protocol and will return this week. ... Tight end Taylor McNamara added a quadriceps strain to his list of ailments. He had missed last week with a back strain. … Malepeai returned to full-contact practice for the first time on Tuesday.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand