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USC vs. Stanford: If Nick Figueroa sits, expect Korey Foreman to be main beneficiary

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USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman kneels in the end zone before playing San Jose State.
USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman kneels in the end zone before playing San Jose State on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

No. 14 USC is set to kick off Pac-12 play against Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum, with the Trojans pushing to build on their late surge against San Jose State.

If Nick Figueroa has to sit out, expect Korey Foreman to be main beneficiary

USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa celebrates a sack with defensive lineman Kobe Pepe.
USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa, right, celebrates a sack with defensive lineman Kobe Pepe against Washington State at the Coliseum on Dec. 6, 2020.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

When Nick Figueroa left the Coliseum field Saturday in a sling, nursing a sprained shoulder, the redshirt senior assured coach Clay Helton at the time that he planned to play through the pain. But after sitting out two practices this week, those plans seemed to grow less certain by the day.

That is, until Vic So’oto offered his own assurances on Wednesday. USC’s defensive line coach didn’t hesitate to say he expected Figueroa to play against Stanford — “and play hard,” he said.

“He played through a torn labrum last year, all six games,” So’oto said. “So I fully expect him to be out there on Saturday.”

It’s unclear if Figueroa will be able to handle a full workload while dealing with his injured shoulder. But if he’s forced to sit out at all, dynamic freshman Korey Foreman is expected to be the main beneficiary.

In his debut last week, Foreman played only on third down and in obvious passing situations — for a total of just over a dozen snaps. That role is bound to expand even if Figueroa plays the full slate Saturday.

USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman kneels in the end zone.
USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman kneels in the end zone before playing against San Jose State on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

“I’ve got confidence in that kid all the way,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “He’s come a mile. When we first talked a month ago, [our strategy was] to be smart in terms of how much we do when he’s in there. But he’s gotten better through practices. Obviously, he’s got an elite skill level and we’re not going to slow him down as a coach.”

A crowded depth chart on the defensive line could still slow Foreman somewhat this season, with Figueroa still expected to retain a major role no matter how the top freshman develops. So far, Foreman has done everything in his power to push him.

“Everything is as advertised,” defensive tackle Tuli Tuipulotu said. “He’s that guy.”

Still, Foreman briefly felt the weight of it all as he stepped onto the Coliseum field for the first time Saturday. Having sat out his senior season of high school, it’d been two years since Foreman played football.

Those nerves went away after the first snap, Foreman said. He received 12 more after that and failed to register a tackle. But as he left, a pocket of fans in the Coliseum tunnel began chanting his name, nonetheless.

“It was a shocker, hearing all the fans chant my name, knowing my mom and dad were in the stands and my two brothers, it was crazy,” Foreman said. “It was an experience I was meant to be put in front of.”

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Receiver Gary Bryant Jr. expected to bolster USC offense against Stanford

USC wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. (1) avoids a tackle by UCLA kicker RJ Lopez (93) on Dec 12 in Pasadena.
USC receiver Gary Bryant Jr. (1) avoids a tackle by UCLA kicker RJ Lopez (93) on Dec. 12 in Pasadena.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Just two USC receivers managed to catch passes in the Trojans’ season-opening win over San Jose State, but the return of another option should help shift that unexpected imbalance somewhat ahead of next Saturday.

Gary Bryant Jr. is expected to play against Stanford, after sitting out most of the preseason because of a hamstring injury. Shortly after his hamstring healed, Bryant was then forced into COVID-19 health and safety protocols, leaving him unable to play against San Jose State.

“I know he’s fired up to have a chance to play in this game, that’s his mindset,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “As long as we don’t have a setback, he’ll be ready. It’s just how we go through the week, to be honest with you. I hope that he’s completely healthy, which we’ll use him for a lot of reps. He’s a weapon, and he provides extra speed on the field.”

USC was expected to use a cadre of receivers in its offensive rotation Saturday, but only Drake London (66 snaps) and Tahj Washington (69) saw meaningful playing time. Freshman Joseph Manjack was named a starter earlier in the week, but received just 15 snaps Saturday, all in the first half. KD Nixon, the Colorado transfer, received eight snaps. Both saw only one target each.

Southern California wide receiver Tahj Washington (16) celebrates with tight end Erik Krommenhoek (84) after catching a pass
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington (16) celebrates with tight end Erik Krommenhoek (84) after catching a pass in the end zone for a touchdown against San Jose State on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Instead of spreading out its receivers, USC spent much of the afternoon in a two-tight-end look, with Erik Krommenhoek (48), Jude Wolfe (50) and Malcolm Epps (17) playing larger than expected roles.

“If we’re in a game where we’re playing with that much 12 [personnel, using two tight ends and one running back], obviously it takes some receivers off the field,” USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said.

That meant a long afternoon on the sideline for the rest of USC’s receivers. Kyle Ford, Michael Jackson III, John Jackson III and Kyron Ware-Hudson did not earn an offensive snap.

Bryant is likely to surpass all of them in his return; though, after an unexpectedly shallow rotation, it’s unclear how much the speedy outside receiver might play after such a prolonged absence.

“He’s another weapon,” said Harrell. “That’s always important. Adds another element to it. He’s got a special skill set. He’s really quick. He can run. He has an explosive skill set. We’ve got a lot of guys who can be pretty good with the football in their hands, and he’s one of them. Just getting another weapon will be good for us as a unit.”

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