New-look freshmen, newfound competition

It's not just their talent the new USC guys bring to the table, it's the ability to compete right away and what that does to everyone ahead of them.

The summer focus for USC football has been, as you would expect, on the arrival of the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.

And that's as it should be. In person, they look more impressive than they did on paper and video. They are as advertised -- and more.

And yet, as important as they would have been in any of the last three years, the thing that makes this class so special is that in only a very few positions, are they needed to step in and play right away.

They're going to have to earn their spots -- the way Shaun Cody and Mike Williams did a decade ago when Pete Carroll was getting it going.

The good news for USC is that this is something the Trojans know how to do -- out of necessity in recent years. Just ask Adoree Jackson and Su'a Cravens and Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee and Robert Woods and more than half of last year's starting offensive line.

But with the exception of Iman Marshall and Tyler Petite, there won't be any draft moves here.

As good as hybrid running backs Dominic Davis and Ronald Jones II and defensive backs Ykili Ross and Marvell Tell may turn out to be, as much potential as offensive linemen Chuma Edoga and Roy Hemsley showed in the spring, and as advanced as inside linebacker Cameron Smith has shown himself to be, they'll have to fight their way onto the field.

Sure, Hemsley goes by you on the way to Cromwell Field and you think if the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder were wearing an NFL uniform, no one would notice the difference. He does not look like a college freshman.

But then very few do here. Cameron Smith's trio of new linebacker compatriots -- Osa Masina, Porter Gustin and John Houston -- do not seem like newbies either.

But looking the part and playing it are two different things. This class will get to the field in one way alone: by earning it. By fighting their way there. By winning those battles every day the rest of the summer.

By competing . . . competing every single minute of every practice. As much as we all know what went right when Pete was here, what went the most right was the constant competing -- offense against defense, the new guys against the veterans and the backups against the starters.

Nothing mattered more.

Continue to compete was the mantra. And not always a head-to-head thing. Just compete for playing time. Compete to get on the field. Compete to get into the rotations.

Because as much as we fantasize about the four-man freshman linebacking quartet of Masina, Gustin, Smith and Houston on the field, the impact on the veterans already there -- Lamar Dawson, Anthony Sarao, Jabari Ruffin, Scott Felix and Michael Hutchings -- and the still-proving themselves -- Olajuwon Tucker, Uchenna Nwosu and Don Hill -- could be the more important story.

Is this maybe a case where a rising tide -- as this freshman class clearly is for USC football -- raises all boats?

That's how it looks from here. Just one example. The four incoming defensive tackle types, much like Roy Hemsley, do not look all that much like freshmen. Jacob Daniel, Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson and Kevin Scott average 6-foot-5 1/3 and 314 pounds.

But with a half-dozen returning veterans ahead of them -- at least classwise -- the path to playing time or the rotation isn't a given. Just one example.

Fifth-year senior Cody Temple is healthy at last. A new father, he's slimmed down to 288 pounds right now but is aiming to play at 295. He's been doing yoga for his flexibility and knows this is his chance. Sure, he's shown potential over the years. But it's now or never.

Much the same for Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend Jr., both backups behind three returnees with starting experience -- Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon. Are they good enough to hold off the guys behind them or the freshmen?

Only one way to find out. It's the same way we see if Tyler Petite's advanced skill set at tight end or Caleb Wilson's ability to catch the ball anywhere, any time, can push upperclassmen Connor Spears and transfer Taylor McNamara at tight end.

Compete for it. Just the way Biggie Marshall was doing the other night after practice against Juju Smith, something JuJu carried on the next night after practice against Adoree Jackson on AJ's first time out this summer.

It becomes a pattern, a habit. And maybe insurance against the way practice would slow down -- and gameplans would be altered -- as the season went on in recent years for the player-limited Trojans. No more of that.

Based on what we're seeing here, these players won't let it. Another example. Look at all the wide receivers that JuJu nominally leads. Steven Mitchell and Darreus Rodgers and a whole host of hard-working, talented walkons have been the core here.

Then along come Isaac Whitney and DeQuan Hampton, working to make the leap from junior college to the big time, as they clearly seem to have.

And yet, has any wide receiver made more of an impact this summer than blueshirt Deontay Burnett, the slim Serra guy whose skill set, speed and toughness have made it clear why USC, Michigan and Arizona State jumped on the Washington State commit late.

More pressure. More competition at a position some might not have thought needed it. But there it is.

Which is where it is everywhere you look.

And that's a very good thing.

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