USC football: Players to watch during spring football

USC quarterback Caleb Williams tilts his head to the left as he talks to coach Lincoln Riley along the sideline.
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams and coach Lincoln Riley will try to improve upon an 11-win season in their second year together at USC. They’ll have plenty of new faces joining them at spring practice starting Sunday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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The honeymoon for Lincoln Riley and USC is over, the adoration and goodwill earned from a stunning 11-win season squandered suddenly in a Dallas debacle two months ago.

The concerns that arose out of that Cotton Bowl defeat still remain. But as USC opens spring practice Sunday, so do many of the players who kept USC in contention for the College Football Playoff, chief among them a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback.

There are plenty of questions still to be answered with Year 2 under Riley underway. Here’s who we’ll be keeping a close eye on this spring:


Zach Branch, wide receiver

No arrival has been more highly anticipated this spring than that of the nation’s top skill-position prospect. Before Branch enrolled, he was already drawing comparisons to Miami Dolphins receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Though those expectations might be unfair for a freshman, the five-star recruit seems like the real deal at first glance.

Branch is an electrifying athlete with elite track speed, capable of cutting on a dime. As a high school sophomore, he ran 10.33 seconds for 100 meters and had the best triple jump in the state in 2021. He’s a big play waiting to happen.

We won’t get to see much of that big-play athleticism until mid-April when USC has its spring game. But it’s a safe bet we’ll be hearing plenty about Branch over the next month.


Anthony Lucas, edge rusher

USC no longer has the nation’s sack leader to lean on, and for a defense that finished among the worst in the nation in spite of Tuli Tuipulotu’s presence, that’s a scary thought.

How the Trojans rebuild that pass rush will be a pressing question this spring. Could Lucas be the answer? A former five-star prospect, Lucas definitely looks the part at 6-6, 270 pounds, but he barely got on the field as a freshman for Texas A&M.


USC is hoping a change of scenery could unlock Lucas. If it doesn’t, the options on the edge are awfully limited. Romello Height is returning from an injury. Korey Foreman has yet to figure it out. It gets thin in a hurry after that.


Mason Cobb, linebacker

Mason Cobb scans the field while playing linebacker at Oklahoma State.
Linebacker Mason Cobb had 96 tackles last season for Oklahoma State before entering the transfer portal.
(Brandon Wade / Associated Press)

USC’s linebackers wore down at the end of last season. Depth at the position wore thin. And in turn, everything else broke down for USC’s defense.

So it was no surprise when the portal opened this offseason that USC honed in on its linebacking corps. And in Mason Cobb, it found a proven talent, capable of anchoring a group that was often adrift last season.

Cobb racked up 96 tackles for Oklahoma State in 2022, earning All-Big 12 second-team honors. He should step in immediately to lead USC’s defense. Expect Shane Lee to shift to weakside linebacker with Eric Gentry set to miss all of spring after surgery.


Tackett Curtis, linebacker

No freshman has received more buzz during winter workouts than Tackett Curtis, whom Riley lauded on early signing day as “the best inside linebacker in the country.”

Curtis was a force as a high school senior. It doesn’t seem unrealistic to think he could make an immediate impact as a college freshman. The question is where he fits in a completely remade USC linebacking corps that’s likely to be led by Cobb.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be long before Curtis is a critical part of the Trojans defense.


Dorian Singer, WR

Arizona wide receiver Dorian Singer tries to make a one-handed catch while defended by USC's Mekhi Blackmon.
Arizona wide receiver Dorian Singer tries to make the catch in front of Southern California defensive back Mekhi Blackmon (6) in the first half during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The last time USC saw Dorian Singer, he was dusting its secondary for 141 yards and three scores in the desert. That performance must’ve made a pretty memorable impression on Riley, who snagged Singer out of the transfer portal to replace its own top receiver.


Singer might not be an NFL prospect as was Jordan Addison, but the former walk-on was certainly prolific as Arizona’s lead receiver last season, finishing second in the Pac-12 and 14th nationally in receiving yards.

He joins a deep receivers corps that lost four players to the portal and has no obvious No. 1. Singer seems the obvious choice for that role, but Mario Williams, Tahj Washington and others might have something to say about that.


Caleb Williams, quarterback

How does one top a Heisman-winning season? That’s the question for USC’s quarterback as spring begins.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Heisman had its only repeat winner, so the odds of that happening are pretty long. Could Williams really be better for USC than he was last season? Let’s not forget how jaw-dropping his numbers were as a sophomore: school records in total yardage (4,919) and passing touchdowns (42), as well as rushing yards (382) and touchdowns (10) by a quarterback. Plus the most touchdowns accounted for in college football (52).

The microscopes are going to come out this season, as scouts from every NFL team will come to the Coliseum to search for nits to pick. Riley has never had one of his Heisman-winning quarterbacks return until Williams. Underestimating what they’re capable of in Year 3 together would be unwise.


MarShawn Lloyd, RB

South Carolina running back MarShawn Lloyd fends off Charlotte defensive back Solomon Rogers with a stiff-arm.
Running back MarShawn Lloyd had 749 total yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games at South Carolina last season
(Artie Walker Jr. / Associated Press)

For the second straight year, USC seems to have found its lead back in the transfer portal.

Austin Jones might have something to say about that, but Lloyd arrives at USC with pedigree as a starting back in the SEC. Last season at South Carolina, he racked up 749 total yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games, proving himself as the kind of all-purpose threat Riley demands in his offense.

On a per-play basis, Jones’ 6.1-yard rushing average last season was more efficient. But he also struggled mightily in pass protection, while Lloyd is a bowling ball of a back, with about 20 extra pounds on his counterpart. Both should have significant roles, but how the hierarchy plays out will be a point of intrigue heading into the season.


Raleek Brown, RB

We kept calling for the Raleek Brown breakout performance last season, and though there were plenty of impressive glimpses, it never quite manifested amid a crowded USC backfield.


That room isn’t any less crowded this season with the arrival of Lloyd, as well as freshmen Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson. Expect USC to manufacture ways to get the ball in Brown’s hands, even if that means lining him up in the slot. He’s too electric to leave unused.


Domani Jackson, CB

Domani Jackson returns an interception for a touchdown while a senior at Mater Dei High during a game at Duncanville, Texas.
Cornerback Domani Jackson was a force at Mater Dei High who figures to show his potential this spring as a starter for the Trojans.
(Jerome Miron / For The Times)

The state’s top prospect in 2022, Jackson dealt with a series of nagging injuries that limited his progress as a freshman. With USC’s top corner off to the NFL, Jackson should have every chance to earn that role this spring.

At 6-1 and 190 pounds, Jackson has the looks of a prototype shutdown defender, along with the physicality and strength to make an impact in the run game. If he can iron out some of his inconsistencies in coverage — and stay healthy — he has the talent to be one of the Pac-12’s top corners this season.


Offensive linemen

Sure, this might be cheating. But all three of USC’s incoming transfers on the offensive line — Jarrett Kingston, Michael Tarquin, Ethan White — will be watched closely this spring. All might wind up starting in the fall.


All three have extensive starting experience. Kingston spent all of last season as Washington State’s left tackle after starting at left guard the previous season. Tarquin was Florida’s right tackle for eight games in 2022, while White spent the last two years as the Gators’ left guard.

Those three positions are wide open heading into the spring, with only Justin Dedich and Jonah Monheim assured of roles right now.