After sanctions, No. 8 USC relies on youth for roster depth
LOS ANGELES (AP) Although ”How Soon is Now?” isn’t on the playlist that blares during practices at Southern California, The Smiths’ classic song sums up the balance between youth and experience that the No. 8 Trojans are trying to navigate this season.
Twelve of USC’s 14 returning senior scholarship players are listed as starters for the season opener against Arkansas State on Saturday. However, 16 first- or second-year players are on the two-deep depth chart, reflecting the roster imbalance resulting from NCAA sanctions handed down in the Reggie Bush case.
Stripped of 30 scholarships over three years, USC could not sign a full 25-man recruiting class until this past February. With the use of blueshirts – non-recruited players who can receive scholarships after they are enrolled in classes – USC has 29 freshmen in uniform, with more than half of the roster composed of freshmen and sophomores.
USC added another blueshirt this week in punter Chris Tilbey from San Francisco City College, the fifth player to join the roster in that manner this fall and the sixth to do so under coach Steve Sarkisian. The second-year coach got the idea from Tennessee’s Butch Jones, who used it to bolster the Volunteers’ similarly depleted roster.
Sarkisian has added former Oklahoma tight end Taylor McNamara, who is listed as one of three possible starters at that position, while Tilbey and the other blueshirts are expected to contribute in future seasons.
”We looked at our roster today rather than what’s … down the road,” Sarkisian said. ”It’s what is best for us today.”
Those blueshirts come at a cost, as any scholarship used to add a player in that manner is lost from the next recruiting class. That means USC has 20 scholarships available in 2016, but Sarkisian’s focus is on winning games right now.
Also in position to help USC right now is the leadership provided by the likes of redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler. Sarkisian points to the 10 players who have already earned their degrees and are now enrolled in graduate school, with seven starters among that group, as a good sign.
”To me, that shows maturity on this team,” Sarkisian said. ”If you look at the really good teams that Stanford had a few years back or even Boston College last year, those are veteran teams with graduate student-type players. We’ve got guys that have been through it and are mature enough to handle adversity that are going to help us.”
Cornerback Kevon Seymour is the lone senior in the secondary, meaning he must shepherd an especially young position group. Seymour credits the leadership exhibited by former USC defensive backs Nickell Robey and T.J. McDonald with shaping his approach.
”Nickell and T.J., they led by example and were always consistent and like a big brother,” Seymour said. ”They always had my back.”
Still, Sarkisian is counting on true freshmen to contribute immediately.
The coach said freshmen running backs Dominic Davis, Ronald Jones, and Aca’Cedric Ware ”have done nothing but impress us in the way they work,” and will see playing time behind senior starter Tre Madden.
Linebacker Porter Gustin has demonstrated much-needed pass rush skills, and cornerback Iman Marshall’s physicality and cover skills have matched his billing as a five-star recruit. Offensive tackle Chuma Edoga will be part of the rotation up front, while tight end Tyler Petite had another strong practice Wednesday with several impressive catches.
”I could rave about a bunch of guys,” Sarkisian said.
Two-way standout Adoree Jackson, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and three offensive linemen played immediately and extensively as true freshmen last season. It will take similar efforts from this year’s touted recruiting class for USC to return to the top of the Pac-12.
And with critical conference games against Stanford and Arizona State in late September, Sarkisian won’t be waiting too long to make judgments about his young roster.
”I’ll hold back until I see them with the lights on,” Sarkisian said. ”The transformation from high school to this practice field is a huge one. It takes the younger players a minute to figure that out. Then the transformation from (practice) to the Coliseum is another big step. We’ll find out a lot about these guys, but so far I’ve been very impressed.”