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.
DE Korey Foreman
All eyes this August will be on the nation’s top recruit. Foreman’s arrival should fortify a USC defensive line that already had the pieces to be one of the Pac-12’s best. The question now is how USC plans to use him, and how quickly Foreman will force his way to the top of the Trojans’ defensive line rotation.
Defensive line coach Vic So’oto hinted at the possibility that USC could move Foreman around as a pass rusher from Day 1, exploiting mismatches by stacking Foreman with his former Corona Centennial teammate, Drake Jackson. Wherever he plays, Foreman has the potential to be special.
QB Jaxson Dart
The freshman quarterback turned heads in the spring with his arm and his early confidence, establishing himself as the man to beat in the battle to succeed Slovis as USC’s starting quarterback.
But Miller Moss, another four-star freshman, is still nipping at his heels. How the two quarterbacks perform during the next three weeks will go a long way in determining where they stand moving forward. For now, Dart has the lead. But will he hold onto it?
OT Jonah Monheim
Amid all the fatalism over USC’s offensive front, Monheim quietly emerged as one of the spring’s most promising performers, applying real pressure to current starting right tackle Jalen McKenzie.
Expect that pressure to continue this fall. McKenzie has been inconsistent since shifting out to right tackle, and Monheim, it seems, would offer a higher ceiling. If Monheim were to win the job, McKenzie could potentially kick back inside, leaving another domino to fall. If the more experienced McKenzie wins out, Monheim is certain to serve as USC’s preferred swing lineman.
WR Tahj Washington
With Bru McCoy away from the team and unlikely to return anytime soon amid a pending felony domestic violence case, USC is going to need another receiver to step into a prominent role. A freshman All-American, Washington flashed serious big-play potential for Memphis last season, catching six touchdowns on just 43 receptions — basically, one score every seven catches.
Washington wasn’t with USC in the spring, but if his 2020 tape is any indication, he could be hard to miss this fall.
WR Kyle Ford
Ford sat out most of the 2019 season recovering from a torn knee ligament he suffered in high school. Then, last summer, he injured his knee again and wound up missing the 2020 season.
But now, after being limited in spring, Ford is finally healthy for the fall and his recovery couldn’t come at a better time for USC, which must find a way to replace McCoy’s physical presence on the perimeter. Ford fits the bill. His role in camp should be telling.
TE Malcolm Epps
Speaking of physicality, none of USC’s options in the passing game are built quite like Epps, who, at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, looks more like a defensive end than a tight end. The Texas transfer might force USC to finally take the tight end position seriously.
How he’ll fit into offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s scheme remains to be seen, but his athleticism and size suggest Harrell should probably find a place for him somewhere.
DT Jamar Sekona
Brandon Pili suffered a season-ending injury in the spring, and Jay Toia, the standout freshman of that session, transferred to UCLA. That leaves Sekona, who had an excellent spring , to take over the middle of USC’s defensive line.
Hulking Alabama transfer Ishmael Sophser could change that calculus, depending on how his recovery from compartment syndrome continues this fall. But for now, Sekona will step into a crucial role without much room for error. The depth behind him and Sophser is, to put it kindly, limited.
LB Raesjon Davis
The freshman from Santa Ana Mater Dei was one of the gems of USC’s recruiting class. A rangy, off-ball linebacker who can blitz with the best of them, Davis will be deployed at some point on USC’s defense. The only question is when.
He may not earn a starting spot before the season starts, but without much top-end talent in the Trojans’ linebacking corps, it’s only a matter of time before Davis makes his mark.