USC’s depth chart offers few surprises ahead of season opener
The starting offensive line was already solidified, with its two redshirt freshman bookends. The backup quarterback, Jaxson Dart, was confirmed. The backfield was pretty much entrenched, the defense mostly determined.
So when USC finally released its depth chart ahead of Saturday’s opener against San Jose State, there were very few surprises to be had.
Perhaps the most notable of depth-chart decisions came at receiver, where sophomore Memphis transfer Tahj Washington and freshman Joseph Manjack both earned starting roles after strong preseason performances. Manjack is the only true freshman listed as a starter. John Jackson, K.D. Nixon, Michael Jackson and Kyle Ford are all also listed on the two-deep and expected to rotate in at some point early on this season.
Texas transfer Malcolm Epps was named the starter at the in-line Y receiver position, in spite of missing a large portion of the preseason with turf toe. Behind him is freshman Michael Trigg, whose standout camp suggests he may push Epps for the spot before too long.
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian rebuilt his life after getting fired from USC because of alcohol issues, but he did so without those who helped launch his career.
USC coach Clay Helton confirmed last week that Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim, both redshirt freshmen, would start at left and right tackle, respectively. Monheim’s rise displaced senior Jalen McKenzie, who’s expected to be the swing tackle for either position in the event of an injury. In the event that even more depth is needed at tackle, true freshman Mason Murphy is expected to be the next option after McKenzie.
At running back, USC continues to maintain it’ll stick with a 1A-1B approach. On Thursday, Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai were named to those two spots. Behind them, TCU transfer Darwin Barlow and speedy junior back Kenan Christon are expected to play spot roles.
While most positions seem at least somewhat solidified, nose tackle remains up in the air given USC’s limited depth on the interior. Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, Jamar Sekona and Kobe Pepe are all listed as possible starters although Ta’ufo’ou spent most of camp in the position while the other two spent several days in health and safety protocols.
There will be plenty of rotation in the secondary as well. While Isaac Taylor-Stuart emerged to win the cornerback job opposite of Chris Steele, Joshua Jackson Jr. and Jayden Williams are both expected to rotate. The same could be true at safety, where transfers Xavion Alford and Chris Thompson Jr. and freshman Calen Bullock earned their places on the two-deep.
Here’s USC’s full depth chart ahead of its season opener:
Defensive end Korey Foreman to play ‘as much as he can take’ against San Jose State
Korey Foreman has fought through a sore shoulder, a pulled groin and a nagging ankle, in addition to the usual growing pains any freshman might feel being thrust into action after nearly two years away from football.
But when the Trojans’ top recruit takes the field Saturday against San Jose State, USC plans to give Foreman all that he can handle in his collegiate debut.
“We’re going to roll him in, and he’ll play quite a bit,” USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “Obviously he’s a dynamic guy, so he’ll play.”
What kind of role he might play right away remains unclear. USC coach Clay Helton said last week that Foreman, though naturally dynamic as a third-down pass rusher, was still finding his footing on early downs.
But on Wednesday, defensive line coach Vic So’oto noted that Foreman would play “as much as he can take.” He compared the situation to how All-Pac-12 defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu earned a role early on last season.
“I’m not one to hold guys to see if they’re ready,” So’oto said. “I trust practice. That’s a big thing for our defensive staff. We trust what we see in practice, then we expect to see that on Saturday. When he gets out there, he’s got full confidence.”
Few of USC’s position groups have elicited more confidence through the preseason than its defensive line, where Foreman has not surpassed the Trojans’ sack leader from last season, Nick Figueroa, on the depth chart. Defensive tackle Tuli Tuipolotu seems on his way to another standout season, while edge rusher Drake Jackson has been a menace to any offensive linemen matched up against him this preseason.
Jackson says he expects Foreman to be up to speed with the rest of the group soon.
“He’s been doing well,” Jackson said. “He just has to get his body right. Once he stays in the training room and gets that all together, he’s gonna be unstoppable.”
Jackson has spent most of camp attempting regain some of the weight he’d lost at the start, when he was held out in health and safety protocols. The junior edge rusher is up to 240 pounds, he says, thanks to a diet consisting largely of his mother’s spaghetti and regular trips to Raisin’ Cane’s for fried chicken.
“Just eat, like a blizzard, as much as I can,” Jackson said. “Anything that comes in front of my face, I’m gonna eat it, for real.”
He’s built up quite an appetite ahead of Saturday’s meeting with San Jose State, which likes to throw deep.
“They like to take shots, I guess,” Jackson said, with a smile. “When they do that, we’re gonna eat.”
USC quarterback Jaxson Dart embracing new backup role
Since he first started playing quarterback, Jaxson Dart has never been a backup. So these circumstances are all a bit new to the freshman recently appointed as USC’s No. 2 under center.
But Dart has been a quick study so far at USC, beating out fellow four-star freshman Miller Moss in camp for the backup job behind Kedon Slovis. Now, with just one injury standing between him and the huddle, that learning process is sure to accelerate from here.
“I’m excited for this new role,” Dart said. “I think it’s going to teach me a lot.”
The freshman has already learned plenty since spring when he first enrolled alongside Moss. Dart said he’s felt the most growth in his footwork, the structure of which he’d never fully homed in on before.
As for taking the reins of USC’s offense, Dart said he feels ready to step in now, if needed.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of progression throughout my time here, within just the playbook and getting my timing and reads down with the guys,” Dart said. “When my number is called, I feel like I’ll be ready and prepared to do my job.”
Recent history suggests he may be called upon sooner than you’d think. Slovis was first thrust into action in 2019 when the anointed starter, JT Daniels, suffered a torn knee ligament in the first half of the season opener. Slovis then missed two games that September because of a concussion, forcing third-string quarterback Matt Fink to lead USC’s offense.
Dart is preparing for the possibility of a similar situation this season. He said the best advice he’s received in his new role as backup is to “take mental reps very seriously, to watch each play and go through the reads like you’re in the game.”
“That way,” he said, “when you get on the field, nothing is a shock to you and you’re ready to roll.”
USC would prefer the freshman to have a full season learning on the sideline — and a full competition next spring — before that’s necessary. By then, the battle with Moss could be even closer.
Since Dart was named the backup, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said Moss has had his best weeks of practice.
“They both play at a really high level,” Harrell said. “That speaks volumes about [Moss], staying locked in and preparing the right way and continuing to compete. And that’s the key.”
For Dart, the key to continuing on his current trajectory starts with learning how to operate in the unfamiliar role he’s been handed.
“I’ve learned that I have to make quick adjustments, and I have to learn fast,” Dart said. “It’s a little different being in high school. You get all the reps and all the time to work on your craft. Now in this position, you only have so many reps, so you have to take advantage of every single one of them.”
USC receiver Gary Bryant out Saturday against San Jose State
After missing most of the preseason with a nagging hamstring injury, there was hope that USC sophomore receiver Gary Bryant would rejoin the offense in time for Saturday’s opener against San Jose State.
But that hope disappeared during Tuesday’s practice, when USC coach Clay Helton announced that Bryant had entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
A former four-star recruit who had seven receptions last season, Bryant was expected ahead of fall to step into one of USC’s top three receiver spots. But after dealing with soft tissue injuries his freshman season, Bryant was held out through most of camp because of a hamstring issue. Last week, prior to his addition to health and safety protocols, Helton called Bryant “probable” for the opener.
“The good thing is we got a lot of kids in that room and a lot of kids with veteran experience,” Helton said. “So even though we may not have Gary in this game, we feel confident with the rest of the guys that are in that room.”
Without Bryant in the fold, USC will likely turn to a cadre of even younger receivers, including freshmen Michael Jackson III and Joseph Manjack, to play meaningful snaps on Saturday. Sophomore transfer Tahj Washington is expected to join All-Pac-12 wideout Drake London as USC’s top two receivers, but beyond them, USC may wind up rotating through several receivers against San Jose State.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has long promised his Air Raid offense would rotate many wideouts. Saturday, that may actually prove to be the case.
“I think we’ll roll more than probably in the past just because I think that kind of where we are with our guys, that fits us more,” Harrell said. “When I played at [Texas] Tech it was more kind of like this, where we did roll out more guys. In the past couple years, we’ve had an upper echelon that was really special. Now I think we’ve got a lot of guys playing at a high level at a really similar level, so because of that I think we’ll be able to keep them fresh and roll guys and have confidence in those guys to make plays.”