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USC football live blog: Jordan Iosefa easing up on push to return

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Jordan Iosefa (56) celebrates a sack with Liam Jimmons (93)
Jordan Iosefa (56) celebrates a sack with Liam Jimmons (93) during the 2018 season at the Rose Bowl.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

USC coach Clay Helton did not say Jordan Iosefa is retiring from football, but he took pressure off the veteran coping with his third season interrupted by injuries.

USC linebacker Jordan Iosefa ‘taking a step back’ from pushing to immediately play

After several surgeries on his knee and faced with a third season of rehabilitation, USC linebacker Jordan Iosefa is “taking a step back” in his attempt to return to the football field.

Iosefa has not officially medically retired from the football team. USC coach Clay Helton stopped short of saying the redshirt senior linebacker’s career at USC was over, leaving the door open for Iosefa to potentially return “for a snap at the end of the year, to come all the way back.”

“He really was hoping it would be further along, but after you’ve had a couple major surgeries like that, it’s something that right now he’s taking a step back,” Helton said. “He’s been such a great leader for us. He’s like a second coach to me. He’s got an unbelievable career in coaching — I’ve already told him that — and the way he’s developed Kana’i [Mauga] and Ralen [Goforth] and those linebackers and just taken them under his wing as not only a leader but almost like a brother figure on the field and off, he’s a special, special man.”

Iosefa first dislocated his knee and suffered cartilage damage in the spring of 2018, but he made a full recovery to play the 2018 season as a starting outside linebacker. The linebacker was named a captain during 2019 fall camp, but he suffered another knee injury that that August. Helton said he believed the injury would keep Iosefa out just four to six weeks.

But he kept working to recover the rest of the 2019 season. Ahead of 2020, Iosefa again underwent season-ending surgery to address scar tissue in the same knee.

His recovery was poised to stretch into a third season in 2021, but Helton said he and Iosefa visited recently to discuss his future.

In spite of his “step back,” Iosefa was still present at Tuesday’s practice, working out with other injured players.

Etc.

— Freshman defensive end Korey Foreman was among the injured players Tuesday as he continues to deal with minor groin and elbow injuries. Helton wasn’t concerned by his status and even suggested that Foreman will play an immediate role in third-down packages on USC’s defense, but added he is “still learning the defense on base downs”.

— Wide receiver Gary Bryant remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. Helton said Bryant is dealing with “a little bit of fluid left on the hamstring that we hope can get out of there by the end of the week.” Helton called him “probable” for the opener, but it’s unclear what his role will be after missing the last several weeks of practice.

— Transfer running backs Keaontay Ingram (ankle) and Darwin Barlow (hamstring) both returned to practice Tuesday and made an immediate impression with the majority of USC’s first-team running back reps. “That was fun,” Helton said. “Really fun. [Ingram] and [Barlow] had fresh legs, and it was really nice to rest Vavae [Malepeai] a little bit and be able to see those two big horses run.”

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Jaxson Dart is chosen as USC’s backup quarterback over Miller Moss

USC quarterback Jaxson Dart looks to pass during USC's spring game at the Coliseum in April.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Just one year ago, Jaxson Dart was barely a blip on USC’s radar. The young Utah quarterback had no Power Five offers. His profile didn’t even appear on all the major recruiting sites.

It would take a senior-season transfer, a pandemic-altered high school campaign, and a meteoric rise to Gatorade national player of the year for Dart to arrive at this moment, with coach Clay Helton making official Thursday what so many around USC had expected since the freshman’s standout spring. Dart will be USC’s backup quarterback behind Kedon Slovis this season, while Miller Moss, a fellow four-star freshman, will occupy the No. 3 spot.

Slovis remains the unquestioned starter under center. The significance of the selection at backup quarterback extends beyond this season, with Dart now presumed to be at the center of USC’s future plans at the position and Moss — for now, at least — on the outside looking in.

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Bru McCoy will not face charges in connection to arrest

USC wide receiver Bru McCoy warms up before a game against UCLA in December.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

USC receiver Bru McCoy won’t face criminal charges after the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file a case following his arrest last month on suspicion of felony intimate partner violence.

The district attorney’s office cited insufficient evidence when asked about its decision but offered no further details.

“We appreciate the careful consideration by both the district attorney’s office and LAPD,” Michael Goldstein, McCoy’s attorney, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “We always trusted the process and the right decision was made.”

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USC names Drake London, Vavae Malepeai, Pola-Mao and Ben Griffiths team captains

USC has named its captains for the 2021 season, tapping receiver Drake London, running back Vavae Malepeai, safety Isaiah Pola-Mao and punter Ben Griffiths to lead the team into a crucial campaign that could decide coach Clay Helton’s fate.

But while USC players elected their first special teams captain since 1998, the Trojans’ All-Pac-12 quarterback was a notable omission.

Kedon Slovis was not voted to be one of USC’s captains after serving in the role as a sophomore last season. Pola-Mao is the only one of USC’s four 2021 captains to have previously held the title.

USC coach Clay Helton said there were several players who received a significant votes.

For Malepeai, who approaches his sixth season at USC, the honor was a validation of the time he’s already leading the Trojans’ backfield. During the past four seasons, Malepeai has rushed for 1,503 yards and 17 touchdowns.

“It’s one thing to be said by the coaches, but it’s your peers that you work out with every day, that you come to eat with every day, it means something more,” Malepeai said. “Just being here a long time, I’m blessed.”

London’s play during preseason camp was enough for his teammates to vote him as the offense’s other captain. He’s expected to develop into a potential first-round NFL draft pick, if his electric camp is any indication of his trajectory this season.

“Having your peers look at you as a leader, it’s something special,” London said.

Electing a specialist to the position is especially rare at USC. The last Trojans kicker or punter to be named captain was Adam Abrams in 1998.

Griffiths, who is 29, came to USC after an eight-year career in the Australian Football League.

“Being an older dude, he really did a great job taking the younger cats in and showing them the way,” Malepeai said of USC’s punter.

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USC defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher hopes to play this season

USC players run off the field after warming up against Oregon for the Pac-12 Conference championship.
USC players run off the field after warming up against Oregon for the Pac-12 Conference championship on Dec. 18, 2020, at the Coliseum.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The hope was that Ishmael Sopsher might be the 6-foot-4, 330-pound answer on the thin interior of USC’s defensive line. But nearly six months after his arrival, the transfer from Alabama has still yet to fully practice for USC after undergoing compartment syndrome surgery before the spring.

Sopsher did, however, speak to reporters on Wednesday for the first time since announcing his transfer to USC in December. The hulking defensive tackle said the condition arose after he suffered an injury during one of USC’s first practices, ahead of the spring session, but declined to offer any more details. He described the condition as feeling like “just tightness in the legs.”

That pain has long ago subsided, as his recovery stretches into its sixth month. Sopsher said he isn’t physically limited and feels “really, really good,” but his status remains a mystery as the season draws closer.

“It’s tough,” Sopsher said of his extended time out. “But just knowing all the coaches are behind me, they just want me to take my time and get back. I’ve been working really, really hard, and hopefully, I should be back soon.”

USC coach Clay Helton offered an optimistic message in the spring that Sopsher would hopefully be ready in the summer. Then, at the start of camp, Helton explained that Sopsher’s return was “probably further down the line.”

“He’s really gone through a tough road and is healthy and getting healthier,” the coach said.

Sopsher said he still needs to improve his cardio work before returning to contact drills.

Without him, USC remains short-handed at nose tackle, where Stanley Ta’ufo’ou has taken the majority of reps. Presumed starter Jamar Sekona has been stuck in COVID-19 health and safety protocols since last week.

For Sopsher, the goal is still to return this season.

“Just to get out there, play, play really hard and hopefully Lord willing win a championship,” Sopsher said.

— Cornerbacks Isaac Taylor-Stuart (knee bruise) and Joshua Jackson (leg) both sat out practice on Wednesday, leaving Jayden Williams to rotate in opposite of locked-in starter Chris Steele. The two corners are both battling to start opposite of junior Chris Steele, but cornerbacks coach Donte Williams said their injuries wouldn’t impact the competition.

— Defensive end Korey Foreman was banged up near the end of practice, but defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said his injury, as well as Jackson’s, weren’t serious.

“My own personal opinion,” Orlando said, “you’ll probably see those guys, if we’re doing it, probably next week at some point. We’re going to be very, very smart with our kids.”

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A leader emerges in QB battle, and other observations from USC’s first scrimmage

USC held its first scrimmage of fall camp Saturday, and just like in the spring, its defense largely set the tone.

Quarterback Kedon Slovis led only two series before sitting out, offering another extended glimpse at his two potential heir apparents. But it was defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his array of exotic blitzes that won the day.

Here are observations from a steamy Saturday scrimmage at the Coliseum …

***

The last time Jaxson Dart took the field at the Coliseum, the freshman emerged as the clear leader in USC’s backup quarterback competition while Miller Moss was trying to find his footing.

The gap between the two freshmen closed a bit since the spring, and Saturday it was Moss who led the second drive of the scrimmage. Both found themselves under heavy pressure early, unable to move USC’s offense as Orlando dialed up blitz after blitz.

Moss initially appeared to be more poised under pressure than Dart, stepping up in the pocket and keeping his footwork. But as soon as Dart found Kyle Ford on an end zone fade from 25 yards, the freshman gunslinger seemed to find his stride. He threw for three touchdowns total, finding John Jackson on a back-shoulder throw and Michael Jackson III on a perfect touch pass.

At one point, as his confidence continued to grow, coaches left Dart in for three straight series.

That swagger hasn’t always been there while the freshman has ironed out some kinks during camp. But on Saturday, Dart again looked the part of USC’s future starting quarterback.

***

Corona Centennial defensive end Korey Foreman warms up before a game against Mater Dei
Former Corona Centennial standout Korey Foreman showed why he was a five-star recruit Saturday at USC’s first scrimmage.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Speaking of looking the part ... freshman Korey Foreman showed why many considered him the nation’s top prospect in 2021. The five-star defensive end was an absolute menace for USC’s offensive line, keeping the Trojans’ tackles on their heels and disrupting play after play. At one point, he lined up alongside Nick Figueroa and Tuli Tuipulotu, the Trojans’ two entrenched starters, perhaps giving a look at an especially intimidating pass-rushing front USC might use this season.

The athleticism on display was freakish. Foreman’s speed and quickness is so tough for more slow-footed linemen to deal with, while his massive wingspan clogged passing lanes and more than once just missed swatting down passes at the line of scrimmage.

The battles between Foreman and potential starting tackle Courtland Ford were especially spirited, as Foreman more than once got the better of the redshirt freshman.

The expectations are high for Foreman, but as he reminded Saturday, so is the ceiling.

***

Ford opened camp as the clear favorite to start at left tackle, but it appears that Jonah Monheim has — for now, at least — supplanted him. Monheim spent the last four practices in the key role, while Ford largely played with the second-team line at right tackle. Since, Monheim has earned rave reviews from USC coach Clay Helton, who said he had the best spring and summer of any player on the team.

In the scrimmage, they each took their turns at left tackle. Ford and Monheim even played together at one point on the first-team offensive line while Jalen McKenzie remained on the sideline. True freshman Mason Murphy played quite a bit on the second-team offensive line.

Whomever was in at offensive tackle, it proved to be tough sledding. USC’s defensive line dominated its offensive front, as the Trojans quarterback spent most of the first hour of the exercise on the run. The run game never really managed to get going, either.

Monheim’s rise has provided some reason for optimism. But the offensive line remains this season’s biggest question mark for a reason.

***

USC running back Kenan Christon tries to run past Arizona State safety Aashari Crosswell
USC running back Kenan Christon tries to run past Arizona State safety Aashari Crosswell on Nov. 9, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

There wasn’t much room to run in the first place, but with two of the Trojans’ top running backs held out during the scrimmage, the run game was pretty much ground to a halt. Keaontay Ingram continues to sit with an ankle injury he said earlier this week was minor, while TCU transfer Darwin Barlow remains out with a hamstring injury.

Their absences made for an important opportunity for junior speedster Kenan Christon, whose role in an especially crowded room remains unclear. Christon had a strong practice Thursday that earned plaudits from running backs coach Mike Jinks. But at the scrimmage, Christon lost a fumble and had a brutal missed block on a safety blitz.

Christon did manage to withstand a few more blitzers, which Jinks challenged him to do, and he had one run nearly bust open until he was caught by a shoestring tackle. But Christon could be in danger of losing ground to the likes of Barlow or even freshman Brandon Campbell who Jinks said this week was USC’s best inside zone back. He’ll need to have a strong finish to camp.

Those two took the majority of carries Saturday, along with Vavae Malepeai. None of the three could conjure much in the way of explosive runs.

***

Ascending star receiver Drake London dressed in full uniform, but never left the sideline. His quiet afternoon was a reflection of just how badly USC needs its top wideout to stay healthy and anchor the passing game.

In his place, freshman Joseph Manjack started the scrimmage as a starting outside receiver along with transfer Tahj Washington. The underrated freshman has been rolling all camp and was again a favorite target as all three quarterbacks tried to find him deep. On one reception, the freshman threw a cornerback off of him before going down.

It’s unclear where Manjack will fit in, but there’s no doubt now that he’s earned at least a part-time role in the Trojans’ rotation at receiver.

***

Quick hits from the scrimmage …

— Transfer safeties Xavien Alford and Chris Thompson played quite a bit with the first-team defense. One of the biggest safeties on the team, Thompson has especially made an impression as a blitzer.

Tahj Washington, the Memphis transfer wideout, had one of the best plays of the day when he streaked across the field and caught a pass in stride from Moss. Washington evaded multiple defenders, reiterating his place as USC’s shiftiest and most slippery receiver.

— Still no Jamar Sekona at defensive tackle, as he remains in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, but redshirt freshman Kobe Pepe returned from the same protocols. He must acclimate, but soon he should re-join USC’s interior and have plenty of opportunity to prove himself.

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USC finds itself in precarious place with defensive tackles

USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is short at the tackle position.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

USC was already dangerously low on defensive tackles. Then, this week, three more came up absent at practice.

Redshirt freshman defensive tackles Jamar Sekona and Kobe Pepe were forced to miss the last two practices while in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando confirmed Friday. Another, Maninoa Tufono, returned to Hawaii to deal with personal matters.

It’s unclear when the three tackles might return, but until they do, USC finds itself in an especially precarious place on the interior.

Their absence has cleared the way for redshirt sophomore Stanley Ta’ufo’ou to take the lion’s share of reps as USC’s first-team nose tackle. Ta’ufo’ou signed with USC as a linebacker in 2019 but added weight and eventually switched to tackle.

Orlando praised Ta’ufo’ou on Friday, while defensive line coach Vic So’oto said he has looked much more comfortable at the position this fall.

“Understanding the ins and outs of playing D-line took some time, but he’s really athletic and he’s really strong,” So’oto said. “He was rotating actually before he took over these past few days playing with the 1’s. He tries really hard, runs and has a different type of athletic ability at that position that you don’t usually see.”

Both So’oto and coach Clay Helton said they weren’t concerned about the lack of depth on the interior after the spring, when expected starter Brandon Pili suffered a season-ending injury and freshman standout Jay Toia decided to transfer to UCLA.

Part of that optimism was attributed to Sekona’s progress, which had been noticeable since spring.

“He’s got grit to him,” Orlando said. “He’s going to be exactly where you asked him to be, and he’s going to give everything he has. And he’s going to develop.”

With Sekona out for the next several practices, USC might have to get creative at the position. Of those with interior experience, only Ta’ufo’ou and redshirt sophomore De’jon Benton remain healthy. Alabama transfer Ishmael Sophser is still out after compartment syndrome surgery. USC, though, is still holding out hope for his return sometime in the future.

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Drake Jackson declares 2021 his last season at USC

USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson plays against Notre Dame.
USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson plays against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 12, 2019.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

As he toiled away in isolation, forced to miss the first four practices of USC’s fall camp while stuck in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Drake Jackson was champing at the bit to get back. Beset by cabin fever, Jackson did his best to pass the time with push-ups, sit-ups, anything to stay active. He scarfed down what food he could but still lost weight while he waited, setting his cardio back further. “It was horrible,” Jackson said.

Jackson finally emerged Wednesday with helmet in hand, relieved and ready to return to fall camp. By Friday, the star pass rusher’s sights were already set on what comes after USC.

“This is my last year; I got to get out of here,” Jackson said. “[I’m going to] leave with a bang too.”

While the handwriting was on the wall about an early exit to the NFL, Jackson didn’t mince any words in declaring his intent to enter the draft after 2021, which he referred to as “my money year.”

Many already view Jackson as a sure-fire first-rounder in a league frothing at the mouth for dynamic pass rushers. But he’ll have plenty to prove to scouts after a subpar season by his standards in 2020. After bursting onto the scene as a freshman with 11½ tackles for loss and 5½ sacks, Jackson took a step back as a sophomore in USC’s new defense, which asked him to play more of a hybrid outside linebacker role.

Sometimes, he rushed the passer. Others, he dropped into coverage. The results were mostly mixed throughout. Jackson finished the six-game season with just two sacks, but he was still named to the All-Pac-12 second team.

“Last year was the first time playing that defense, being a linebacker, and I was kind of hesitant on some stuff,” Jackson said. “Now I can really just go.”

Jackson certainly seemed like himself in the spring. During USC’s spring showcase, he stopped a drive entirely on his own, sacking the quarterback, swatting a pass attempt, and then stopping the running back in the backfield on three consecutive plays.

That version of Jackson hasn’t been unleashed at fall camp just yet, as he works his way through the NCAA-mandated acclimation process. When he does finally put on full pads, coach Clay Helton said the primary concern will be getting him into shape for the season.

“He’s such a special athlete. It’s going to be like that,” Helton said, while snapping his finger. “We’ll take it slow and easy, and I expect him to be full go for next week.”

With his days now numbered, Jackson said he feels a desire to be more of a leader on USC’s defense this season, passing down what he knows to younger players.

That should be easy for the junior edge rusher, who finds himself in place to mentor his best friend and former Corona Centennial teammate Korey Foreman, who arrived at USC this fall with even higher expectations than Jackson once did.

“It’s just like being in high school all over again,” Jackson said. “It’s like nothing different. Now we’re a little bigger.”

Everything will be different after this season, as Jackson leaves for the NFL and Foreman, more than likely, steps into his vacated role of star pass rusher. Before then, though, Jackson says he plans to leave his mark.

“You just want to step up because you’ve been here for so long, and now it’s time,” Jackson said. “You see guys come and go, you got a lot of information that you want to give. So now, it’s time to give it.”

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USC crowded running back unit battles for two featured spots

USC running back Vavae Malepeai brushes off a tackle while carrying the ball
USC running back Vavae Malepeai is the Trojans’ top returning rusher.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Jinks was up front with his running backs at the start of USC’s fall camp. The plan to reboot USC’s moribund run game remained the same from spring. Two of them would earn feature roles, while the rest would only earn carries here and there.

That premise was no problem for Keaontay Ingram, the Texas transfer and presumed leader of the Trojans’ crowded running back battle. Ingram left Texas and the shadow of star back Bijan Robinson in search of opportunity, leaving behind 1,811 yards he racked up as a Longhorn to join a backfield that ranked among the worst in the Power Five last year.

“I didn’t shy away from it,” Ingram said this week. “Actually talking to the coaches and stuff like that, I wanted to come to this situation. Why not?”

Ingram stepped into USC’s spring practice with that same swagger, rising immediately through the ranks at running back. He had no problem picking up USC’s offense, which he explained “was like a cakewalk for me.”

“Football is still football at the end of the day,” Ingram said. “Everybody pretty much do the same main concepts.”

Jinks wouldn’t say which two backs he currently prefers as USC held its first full-padded practice on Thursday. But Ingram, who sat out Thursday with a minor ankle injury, didn’t hesitate when asked whether he’d done enough to be one.

“Oh, most definitely,” Ingram said with a grin.

Whether any other running back can beat out sixth-year senior Vavae Malepeai for the other spot in USC’s tandem backfield is still to be determined. Malepeai led the team in rushing each of the past two seasons and has earned the trust of USC’s coaching staff.

He took a slightly more humble approach than his counterpart when asked about USC’s backfield battle.

“I’ve never really looked at it as I need to be the guy,” Malepeai said. “I’ve always looked at it as I’m going to be better than I was yesterday.”

He’s not exactly a natural complement to Ingram, another three-down power back, but the potential for redundancy doesn’t seem to bother Jinks.

“Production. That’s what we’re looking for,” Jinks said. “When you’re on the football field, our team is better.”

There’s certainly nowhere to go but up for USC’s rushing attack, which averaged just 97 yards per game last season. Since, Jinks has been clear about his intention to stick with a “1A and 1B” in the run game.

That doesn’t leave much room for others to emerge from a crowded room. But Texas Christian transfer Darwin Barlow continues to impress USC’s coaching staff, including Jinks, who brought him up unprompted Thursday to note that he was “special.” Like Ingram, he had no issue picking up the offense, which was similar to the one he ran at TCU. Jinks was especially impressed by Barlow’s pass protection — through the first four days of camp, he didn’t miss a single block. He missed the last two practices with a hamstring injury.

TCU quarterback Max Duggan hands the ball off to running back Darwin Barlow against Kansas State.
TCU quarterback Max Duggan hands the ball off to running back Darwin Barlow against Kansas State on Oct. 10, 2020, in Fort Worth, Texas.
(Richard W. Rodriguez / Associated Press)

“He looks like a vet right now,” Jinks said of Barlow, who came to USC as, technically, a third-year freshman.

If Barlow emerges, speedy junior Kenan Christon could find carries even harder to come by than last season, when he had just 10 in six games. Jinks said on Thursday that Christon could be “a game-changer,” but still needed to maintain his weight and improve his pass protection.

In a crowded room, those details could make a major difference in determining roles this season.

“We’ve got a very talented room,” Jinks said. “It’s going to breed competition, and again, we want a couple guys to get there. The best two guys will be out there the majority of the time.”

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USC coaches won’t rush freshmen Korey Foreman and Raesjon Davis

Defensive end Korey Foreman warms up before a game.
Defensive end Korey Foreman warms up before a game between Corona Centennial and Mater Dei on Aug. 23, 2019, at Santa Ana Stadium.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When USC made its final pitch to land Korey Foreman, it sold the nation’s top recruit on his impending stardom, presenting in quantifiable detail how he could build his personal brand in a new world of name, image, and likeness.

“It was like I’m the King of Hollywood,” Foreman said at the time. His signing soon after came with a hype video and a billboard.

His arrival this fall has been far more low-key, by comparison. Where Foreman once willingly shouldered the weighty expectations that came with his signing, the freshman defensive end is now eager to shed that symbolism with his first fall camp at USC underway.

“To be honest, all of that really doesn’t matter to me no more,” Foreman said in his first meeting with reporters on Tuesday. “I’d done that back in high school, but right now it’s a new day and era and right now I’m in a college atmosphere. It’s what I do now and what’s gonna happen the next day and the next day and the next day.”

The first few days of camp, Foreman admitted, have been “a big change, for sure.”

“The speed of the game has been a lot faster than I thought it would be,” he said. “Being able to come out here and just train in the off-season, I thought I was able to prepare for it. But some things you can’t prepare for and you step into and it’s just a new world. That’s OK because once you step into that world, I feel like everything else is just what you can do after that.”

For now, baby steps will do. Even as they gush about his athleticism, USC’s coaches have made clear they intend to bring Foreman along slowly.

With Nick Figueroa and Tuli Tuipulotu already established up front, Foreman has spent most of USC’s early 11-on-11 periods with the second-team defense.

“I have to be smart about what we do with him,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “We’re watching him, he’s super skillful, and you just gotta make sure he’s not processing too much.”

The same holds true for Raesjon Davis, the touted freshman linebacker from Santa Ana Mater Dei. He said his biggest adjustment so far has been the depth of the defensive concepts he’s had to learn.

Mater Dei outside linebacker Raesjon Davis is rated a five-star prospect by the 247Sports composite rankings.
(Shotgun Spratling / For The Times)

“It’s not the same as high school where it’s just like two defenses,” Davis said. “It’s like four or five so just learning all those and trying to get your mind around everything and the concepts is really the difference. But I would say they’re bringing me along pretty good. I love Coach Orlando.”

Neither Davis nor Foreman were eager to talk about their own expectations as freshmen. Foreman specifically deferred depth chart questions to Clay Helton, USC’s coach.

But if either freshman defender develops as planned, they could find themselves in key roles as soon as this fall.

“Right now, we’re just working,” Davis said. “Everybody’s just trying to get better, trying to see how it goes. Coach Orlando, he does a great job of teaching everybody one-on-one. So if you need help or [are] struggling, he’ll help you. So really that’s how it is. Everybody’s just trying to get better every day.”

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USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson cleared to return to team

USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson plays against Notre Dame.
USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson plays against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. on Oct. 12, 2019.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

After sitting out the first four days of fall camp while in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, edge rusher Drake Jackson was finally cleared to re-join USC’s defense on Wednesday. But it’ll be almost another week before he’s ready to fully contribute, due to acclimation rules at the start of camp.

Jackson must practice two days in helmets and then three days in shells, before he’s eligible to put on full pads, per NCAA rules. That puts the talented pass rusher on track to be fully acclimated by next Tuesday, with just five camp practices remaining. The rest of USC’s defense will have its first full-contact practice in pads this Thursday afternoon.

“From a schematic standpoint, he’s going to be fine,” Helton said of Jackson. “I’m more worried about him being in football shape, getting his feet up underneath him. He’s such a special athlete. We’ll take it slow and easy, and I expect him to be full-go by next week.”

His absence, while brief, underscores a reality USC and others may still face this college football season as they remain under COVID-19 safety protocols amid the lingering pandemic.

Helton said at Pac-12 media day that the Trojans boast a vaccination rate above 90 percent, but if any of those unvaccinated players test positive or are deemed to come in close contact with someone who’s positive this season, they’ll have to isolate for 10 days. A vaccinated player, on the other hand, must isolate for three days and provide a negative test.

--Running backs Keaontay Ingram (ankle) and Darwin Barlow (hamstring) sat out of practice on Wednesday. Ingram said after practice on Tuesday that he would be fine, while Helton didn’t seem too concerned about Barlow’s status.

--After dealing with soft tissue injuries throughout his freshman season, wideout Gary Bryant Jr. sat out practice with a hamstring injury.

--Helton confirmed that Texas transfer wideout Jake Smith won’t play this season after sustaining a foot injury. Smith hadn’t practiced through the first five days of fall camp.

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USC defensive end Korey Foreman is meeting expectations, so far

Defensive end Korey Foreman warms up before a game.
Defensive end Korey Foreman warms up before a game between Corona Centennial and Mater Dei on Aug. 23, 2019, at Santa Ana Stadium.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When Korey Foreman first signed with USC eight months ago, it was presented as a program-altering event, capable of rewriting years of recruiting wrongs and turning the tides for a team that hadn’t seen a top recruit sign in more than a decade.

With such symbolism, naturally came outsized expectations. But through the first few days of preseason camp, his coaches say those weighty expectations haven’t been too much for Foreman to carry as of yet.

“Our expectations of what he does on the field are higher than anybody else’s,” defensive line coach Vic So’oto said. “There isn’t a bigger critic out there than Korey Foreman and myself.”

It wasn’t until this past summer, months after he officially signed, that So’oto finally met Foreman in person. Since then, their relationship has only solidified further as So’oto learns how to get the best out of the beastly defensive end.

“He’s kind of low-key,” So’oto said, “but you push the right buttons, and he gets fired up.”

The primary question now, as Foreman finds his stride, is when and how USC plans to push those buttons this season. That’s when USC’s coaches have found themselves checking their own expectations for Foreman.

“He’s everything that we thought he would be,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “Mentally, it’s how much can he process and as a play-caller, we have to be smart about how much we give him too. So, it’s a work in progress.”

That work already seems to be pretty far along. The hulking freshman already looks the part of a dominant defensive end, even if he’s still a few steps behind those who had an entire spring at their disposal.

“He’s just a really rare athlete,” defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “He moves really well. He’ll flip his hips. He’s a strong kid. He’s getting his weight going. He’s getting there, but he’s still strong, even at this weight now. You know once things click, he’s going to be great for us.”

There’s still plenty of time for that. Foreman has worked mostly with the second-team defense so far in camp, with Figueroa and Tuli Tuipulotu anchoring the Trojans’ defensive line at opposite ends.

Both are billed for major roles up front, allowing Foreman to be brought along slowly. And if both take the significant leaps they’re expected to make this season, the demands on Foreman as a freshman might not be nearly as high as they were expected to be when he signed.

So far, that appears to be the case. Both Tuipulotu and Figueroa added more than 20 pounds of muscle to their frames, in order to more readily play any of the available positions along the defensive line. That versatility should help mitigate the paper-thin depth USC was left with on the interior, after Jay Toia’s transfer and Brandon Pili’s season-ending injury.

“Everyone has changed their bodies in a way that they can play all these positions,” So’oto said.

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Trojans say they have open competition on offensive line

USC's Courtland Ford warms up before a game Nov. 14, 2020, in Tucson.
Courtland Ford, shown before a game last November, seemed poised to be USC’s starting left tackle, but the competition now appears open.
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

When Courtland Ford stepped in as USC’s left tackle this past spring and never left, it appeared that the biggest question mark along a questionable Trojans offensive line was answered.

Ford was the only freshman lineman to start a game last season and the first called upon to replace first-round draft pick Alijah Vera-Tucker in April. His future as USC’s left tackle seemed all but assured.

Ford remained in that role to open fall camp Friday. But by Day 2, that seemingly sealed left tackle competition looked wide open.

It was Jonah Monheim, not Ford, who stepped in as USC’s first-team left tackle Saturday, signaling that the battle to be the blindside protector is not as won as it once seemed.

“We’ve got an open competition right now with the starting offensive line,” new USC offensive line coach Clay McGuire said. “Jonah, Courtland, [Jalen] McKenzie and [Andrew] Vorhees and [redshirt freshman] Casey Collier, we’ve got guys that are all competing for those tackle spots right now.”

Kedon Slovis, Courtland Ford and Tahj Washington are among the USC players who will be watched closely as the Trojans open preseason football workouts Friday.

Whether Monheim will keep hold of that role is anyone’s guess. McGuire and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell assured Saturday that they would continue to mix and match linemen in different positions. But both made a similar promise in the spring, only for Ford to spend the entire session solidified at left tackle.

Even as Ford took hold of the role then, Monheim earned the most effusive praise from coaches over the spring as the Trojans’ second-team right tackle. The hyperbole started with USC’s head coach, as Clay Helton suggested at the time that “Jonah may have had the best camp of anybody on our football team.”

That camp, Monheim said, was crucial in building his confidence.

“I felt a jump in spring, and I’m hoping to keep building on that right now,” Monheim said. “I think that just comes from mental processing, being in the scheme, understanding defensive schemes. I’m just feeling quicker, feeling a little faster.”

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The progress was evident Saturday as Monheim routinely stood tall against standout defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu during 11-on-11 work.

He and Ford might both wind up starting, if McGuire holds to his promise of competition at both tackle spots. McKenzie, a senior right tackle, struggled at times last season and could be in jeopardy of losing his job if Monheim and Ford continue to impress. On Saturday, McGuire said he believes all three tackles could “play at a really high level.”

“The trick for us is really to figure out which of the two are the best ones,” McGuire said.

Ford stated his case for one of those two spots over the summer by focusing on rebuilding his body.

“I felt like it changed me totally,” Ford said of USC’s offseason training program. “I feel more control of my body. It’s just more technique and being able to have the repetition. I’m strong enough and powerful enough to sit back and anchor anything.”

It’s still undecided whether he will be the one anchoring the Trojans’ maligned offensive front. But after spending most of the spring in front, Ford doesn’t seem to be backing down from the prospect of a competition.

“I love it,” Ford said. “There’s no spot locked down, so it’s a grind every day, knowing I’m fighting for a starting spot. The motivation inside of me is going to be push me every day. Because I know I have a job to win.”

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USC coach Clay Helton hopes the Trojans’ thin defensive line unit can stay healthy

His tone was optimistic, his outlook especially sunny on the first day of USC’s preseason camp Friday. But when it came to questions about USC’s diminishing defensive line depth, Trojans coach Clay Helton asked gathered reporters for an assist.

“We’re going to need some luck,” Helton said. “All y’all pray, and hopefully we’ll stay healthy at that position.”

Even Helton couldn’t sugarcoat concerns along USC’s defensive front, where one defensive tackle suffered a season-ending injury spring (Brandon Pili), another transferred across town to UCLA (Jay Toia), and a third (Ishmael Sophser) is still recovering from compartment syndrome surgery. Redshirt sophomore Jamar Sekona sits atop the mangled depth chart at the moment, with only redshirt freshman Kobe Pepe pushing for a spot on the interior behind him.

Many hoped Sophser’s return would offer some salvation. But the hulking former Alabama defensive tackle has been out since March recovering from surgery. Sophser was able to work into individual drills on Friday, and Helton said “his cardio” was the primary concern at the start of camp.

Still, his return is “probably further down the line,” Helton said.

“He’s really gone through a tough road and is healthy and getting healthier,” the coach continued. “We’ll take it day by day and at his pace. It was a really positive day to be able to see him out here and do some work.”

Concerns along the defensive line were only heightened by the absence of All-Pac-12 edge rusher Drake Jackson from USC’s first practice. The talented linebacker was sidelined due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, but Helton said he expects Jackson will return sometime early next week.

Until then, Helton will have to cross his fingers and hope he doesn’t lose any more defensive linemen.

“There are bodies there,” Helton said. “There’s not a true three-deep like the other positions. It’s about 2 1/2. I think we’re three to four deep at all other positions. We have to be careful with that. We have to monitor it.”

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USC evaluates potential Bru McCoy replacements

Redshirt sophomore receiver Bru McCoy remains away from USC, after his arrest on suspicion of felony intimate partner violence, and Helton would not comment any further on the incident that led to his removal, other than to refer back to the university’s original statement.

But on Friday, USC set about digging through its copious depth at receiver for someone to fill the hole McCoy leaves in the Trojans offense.

As Helton sees it, the void won’t be filled by one player. Or even strictly a receiver.

“What really stuck out to me is how we invested in some of the bigger bodies,” Helton said, when asked about the other pass-catchers in camp. “You see a [Texas transfer tight end] Malcolm Epps out here. [Freshman tight end] Michael Trigg. A Jude Wolfe, being back out here that wasn’t in spring. The other thing that really stood out to me is the ability to use some two-back, which we saw today. I really like this backfield, and how it’s coming together. They’re multi-talented as runners and as receivers. So, I think we’re going to be able to do more personnel groupings as long as we stay healthy.”

Memphis wide receiver Tahj Washington (18) runs
Tahj Washington, who transferred from Memphis to USC, could be a top target for the Trojans this season.
(Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

Tahj Washington, a speedy transfer wideout from Memphis, could be one of the first in line at outside receiver. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound wideout doesn’t boast the same size advantage or physicality as McCoy, but when asked about Washington on Friday, Helton compared him to former USC and NFL wideout Marqise Lee.

“You saw him at a bunch of different positions today, right, left, inside,” Helton said of Washington. “He’s a guy that we’ll use all over the place, and the thing that I think he’s going to bring to the table, he’s got true top-end speed. He can take the top off a defense in the hurry. So we’re really excited.”

Friday also offered first glimpses since 2019 of wideout Kyle Ford, who suffered a torn ligament in his knee last summer, the second time he’s had to sit out a season due to a major knee injury.

“To have to go through that twice, have the positive attitude that he’s had and be out here competing, man, credit to him,” Helton said. “What a tough-minded kid, how hard he’s worked, you could just see how much fun he’s having today.”

Not all of the receiver reinforcements are ready to go at the start of camp. Texas transfer Jake Smith sat out with a foot injury that “may require surgery,” Helton said.

“We’ll see where it goes, but I see him out for an extended period of time,” the coach said.

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10 USC football players to watch entering training camp

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis drops back to pass against UCLA.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis drops back to pass against UCLA.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The USC football team has much to prove after a pandemic-shortened season ended in bitter defeat in the Pac-12 title game.

With preseason camp set to begin on Friday, here are 10 players to watch as the Trojans prepare for the crossroads campaign that lies ahead:

QB Kedon Slovis

Entering his third season, Slovis stands at his own crossroads. He lost confidence in his arm as a sophomore and wasn’t nearly as sharp, even as he led USC to five straight wins and was named to the All-Pac-12 first team. Slovis’ trajectory is more of a question mark now than it was one year ago, when some thought he might emerge as the top quarterback in his class.

He still may. Slovis worked in the offseason with renowned throwing coach Tom House to tighten up his mechanics and improve his footwork. He assures his confidence has returned. “I feel like I’m in a really good place right now,” he said at Pac-12 media day last month.

He’ll need to stay there if USC hopes to find itself in place to win the Pac-12.

OT Courtland Ford

There’s no more pressing concern for USC at the outset of fall camp than its offensive front, and Ford is the biggest piece of that uncertain puzzle. The reviews from USC’s summer workouts have been glowing, and the fact that he’s already won the left tackle job is noteworthy. But outside of one spot start as a freshman, we haven’t seen Ford prove anything yet.

At 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, Ford looks like a prototypical mauling left tackle. USC desperately needs him to play like one come September.

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