LOS ANGELES — USC is now one full week through training camp as it prepares for its most anticipated season in recent memory. Here are some takeaways from the first week of practice.
1. Lincoln Riley met with the media early Friday evening, a few hours after the Big Ten announced the additions of Oregon and Washington. It’s been 13 months since USC and UCLA announced their move to the Big Ten, where it was assumed those schools would be the league’s only West Coast presence.
Obviously, that changed on Friday. Riley didn’t have much of a reaction to the news other than being pretty adamant that USC made the move with only itself in mind.
“Our university, our leadership made the decision to go into the future with the Big Ten after this season because it was the best thing for USC,” he said. “It was not contingent on any other schools, anything else. We don’t make decisions here at USC based on anyone else other than doing what’s best for our university, the best for our student-athletes period. My reaction today is I have no reaction. We’re trying to win the Pac-12 and we’ll deal with the Big Ten when that time comes.”
The Trojans are the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 in its final season in the league. Their November matchups with Washington and Oregon are highly anticipated, and after Friday’s news, we don’t know the next team we will see USC play those teams.
2. As far as on-field topics go, USC’s offense was so well-rounded last season. Obviously, Caleb Williams was tremendous on his way to claiming the Heisman. The receiver group was deep and talented. The offensive line was strong.
It’s easy, at times, to overlook USC’s running game. The Trojans were solid on the ground last season, averaging 5.07 yards per rush (26th nationally). Travis Dye was so steady, and Austin Jones had big games against UCLA and Notre Dame late in the season.
After Thursday’s practice, Williams and running backs coach Kiel McDonald both said the running game can make a jump this year.
McDonald was asked if there were any aspects of the USC running game that was lacking last season. “I thought we could be more explosive at times,” he said. “Travis loved to thug it out, you know, gave you everything that he had. Same thing with Austin, but I think we’ve got a couple guys in the room that can really run. So we’ll get a chance to see those guys in the next couple weeks.”
There’s truth behind that statement. The Trojans tied for 13th nationally in runs of 10-plus yards last season with 91 but were only for 50th with runs of 20-plus yards with only 18.
McDonald said that South Carolina transfer MarShawn Lloyd brings something new to the position group.
“He is explosive and he is really, really twitchy,” McDonald said. “Those for him are kind of an elite skill set that we had but not to his level, so we’ll get a chance to see that in the next couple weeks.”
3. I’m curious to see what Lloyd can add to the running back group this season. He rushed for 573 yards and nine touchdowns last year and is adept as a receiver too. If he can bring more explosiveness, which he showed in the spring game, then it elevates the ceiling for this offense.
MarShawn Lloyd moving like this makes my heart happy pic.twitter.com/vXGXLri1Kq
— Jason DiRienzo (@allpurposescout) April 16, 2023
USC’s freshman backs are intriguing too. Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson were both four-star signees in the 2023 cycle and both had positive flashes during the spring.
When asked about what the freshmen have shown so far during camp, McDonald said: “I think they picked up right where they left off.”
The Trojans should have some solid depth at the position, which they couldn’t really say last year.
4. Speaking of freshmen, rush end Braylan Shelby, USC’s highest-rated defensive signee in the 2023 class, certainly looks the part.
“We all wish we looked like Braylan,” Riley joked on Wednesday of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound edge rusher.
— Chris Treviño (@ChrisNTrevino) August 2, 2023
Riley said Shelby is picking up the defense fast, but he’s still adjusting to everything that goes into life in the trenches as a college football player — the physicality, the aggressiveness, the technical aspect of it.
But his flash plays are notable.
“You see some rushes that you’re like ‘OK, that’s what it should look like.’ You see him pursue and the way he can open up and run, a guy his size shouldn’t be able to do that. There are some things we’re really, really excited about. Another one we’re very pleased with up to this point.”
5. Romello Height opened last season as the starter at rush end then suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Stanford. There’s been some interest about how he’d fit into the rotation once healthy this year, but he’s been nicked up in this early part of camp and didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
According to Riley, the injury doesn’t seem too serious. But it’s not an ideal time for Height to miss practice with USC adding more depth at the position this offseason. Texas A&M transfer Anthony Lucas is the projected starter at rush end and the staff is high on Georgia State transfer Jamil Muhammad’s potential. Not to mention the addition of Shelby.
Height faces a seemingly uphill climb for a spot in the rotation once he returns to practice.
6. Third-year linebacker Raesjon Davis has not been a full participant in practice either after he suffered a hand injury during the first few days of camp. Riley said he’ll be out for a few days and should return during the second half of camp.
It’s a critical time for Davis, who was a top-50 recruit in the 2021 cycle but has yet to garner consistent playing time during his time with the program. Injury aside, Riley spoke highly of Davis’ progress on Wednesday.
“He feels like a guy who’s starting to surge. He’s in the best shape, by far, of his life,” he said. “His body is much more developed than where he was when we came in. He’s stronger, faster, a little more confident. He knows the scheme really well. He’s really become one of our better coverage linebackers just in terms of athleticism and feel in space.”
Time will tell if that means anything for Davis’ snap count this season.
7. It’s clear the staff is investing time and effort into getting freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis ready to play as soon as possible.
“This is Year 2 of the defense and we’re trying to — as fast as we can — get him in the Year 2 mindset with everyone else,” linebackers coach Brian Odom said on Wednesday. “What does that mean? It’s not thinking about your responsibility before the snap. Not thinking about how I can go make a play and getting that to be second nature. He’s done a great job with that. He’s getting so many good, valuable reps right now in camp, which is gonna pay a lot of dividends a lot sooner than later. We’ve always been really excited about him but obviously still really excited about him and the things he’ll be able to do here.”
Odom also said Curtis’ day-to-day mentality “is as good as I’ve ever been around.”
Words only mean so much at this point of the year, but when a position coach speaks so highly of a player, it’s not difficult to see Curtis becoming a factor in the linebacker rotation at some point in the season. And who knows, it might happen earlier than anticipated as USC’s schedule is easier in the first half of the year.
8. One of the things that stood out during post-practice interviews on Thursday was Williams and offensive line coach Josh Henson singling out redshirt sophomore tackle Mason Murphy for his development this past offseason.
“I thought the two guys right now who are most improved are Mason Murphy and Mike Tarquin,” Henson said. “Mason has improved a ton. His consistency. He had a great offseason in the weight room. He’s gotten a lot stronger. He’s anchoring way better now in pass rush. Man, he’s just getting really consistent with putting himself in good spots where he doesn’t lose fast. That’s a bad thing in the O-Line to lose fast. But he’s doing really well. I’m really pleased with where Mason’s at.”
Murphy was thrown into the fire often last season as Bobby Haskins continually dealt with shoulder issues — often in the middle of games. Murphy had some rough moments where he lost in fast, humbling fashion. He started in the Pac-12 title game but struggled against Utah and was replaced in the starting lineup in the Cotton Bowl.
He said he’s more consistent now and has more knowledge of the playbook, but he really emphasized his strength after speaking with Henson after last season.
“It was mostly my strength, especially coming in,” he said. “I’m a longer guy so it’s a lot harder to get a lot stronger, faster. But this offseason, I really grinded, just put my head down and kept working.”
Jonah Monheim seems pretty settled in at first-team left tackle. Tarquin has worked with the first team at right tackle, but it’s hard to count on just five offensive linemen over the course of a season. So USC needs Murphy to develop for depth purposes, but also for the future because he’ll probably be in line to start beyond this season.
(Photo of Lincoln Riley: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)