USC

USC freshmen open possibilities for Trojans in Idaho football matchup

Ronald Jones II, Austin Copeland, Max Tuerk

USC freshman running back Ronald Jones II runs for a 44-yard touchdown with Arkansas State linebacker Austin Copeland chasing him.

(Danny Moloshok / Associated Press)

USC had impressive statistics in its season-opening victory over Arkansas State, but the most telling for the Trojans were not reflected in points, touchdowns, yards or tackles.

USC played 23 new players, including 13 first-year freshmen.

Several members of USC’s 2015 recruiting class made impact plays, including tailbacks Ronald Jones II, Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis and linebackers Cameron Smith and Osa Masina.

Those freshmen and others are expected to enjoy larger roles Saturday at the Coliseum when the Trojans play Idaho in a game that is expected to be a USC rout.

The Trojans, ranked eighth in the Associated Press media poll and 10th in the coaches’ poll, are more than a six-touchdown favorite over the Vandals. So the game will be another opportunity to develop depth.

“They should be a little bit more prepared than they were the first game,” USC junior linebacker Su’a Cravens said of the Trojans’ newcomers. “They got those first-game jitters out.

“But they’re still young; it’s still Week 2. We’re going to do a lot of rotating like we did last game and see what they can do.”

USC struggled with depth issues last season, the first since emerging from NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions that depleted the roster.

The 2015 recruiting class was the first full 25-player class since 2011.

USC coaches, who chose not to play many available backups last season, are doing so with gusto this season.

USC played 10 offensive linemen, nine defensive linemen and 10 linebackers in the 55-6 victory over Arkansas State.

“Some guys were more comfortable than others,” Coach Steve Sarkisian said, “some guys were a little more tentative than others.”

Smith started at middle linebacker and Masina and freshman Porter Gustin also made their debuts. Smith knocked down a pass, Masina returned an errant lateral for a touchdown and Gustin made three tackles.

“We’re not throwing any of these guys in the deep end and letting them drown,” linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. “They’re a significant part of the rotation that we’re going to continue to play.”

Offensive coordinator Clay Helton said improved depth was most evident at tailback, where Jones, Ware and Davis backed up fifth-year senior Tre Madden.

“There’s such a change of pace,” Helton said. “You go from Tre Madden, he’s a power runner, [then] you put [Davis] on the field and he’s a fastball. [Jones], I don’t know where he’s going but it turns out good.

“Each one has their own characteristics.”

The tailback depth will improve more this week when junior Justin Davis, the leading returning rusher from last season, returns from a rib injury.

The Trojans were encouraged by several new receivers. Redshirt freshman Jalen Greene, who switched from quarterback after spring practice, caught two passes and completed an option pass. Junior college transfers Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton also caught two passes.

“I had the jitters at first,” Whitney said. “But after the first snap I felt good and I got really comfortable and the game slowed down for me.”

Tight end Taylor McNamara, a graduate transfer who played at Oklahoma, also caught a touchdown pass in his Trojans debut.

Quarterback Cody Kessler said this week that with one game of experience, the new players would be treated “as vets.”

“Having played a game in the Coliseum”, he said, they “know what to expect, you know how the game’s going to be.”

The goal for the new players on Saturday is simple.

“You’ve got to go out and perform,” Kessler said, “and keep improving on the week before.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein