Lots of reasons to like USC's 1st scrimmage

Sure it was rough in spots as you'd expect the first time out but the possibilities, and the number of players who look like they can play, was way more than expected.

Lots of plays. "120 something," Steve Sarkisian said after Monday evening's full-pads scrimmage.

Lots of players. But who's counting? It's been that way all August.

How do we know that?

Well, when they ask us who we want to talk to after the scrimmage, the first half-dozen we can think of are still off-limits because they just got here -- OK, that was last January, for some of them. But these things take time at USC now.

Not as much time, apparently, as it takes to work their way in on the field. What really matters for the 30 plus rookies we can't touch base with is the way they're letting their play do their talking.

Here's a quick list of those we'd have had a word with if we could: Porter Gustin, Osa Masina, Cameron Smith, John Houston, Jacob Daniel, Iman Marshall, Marvel Tell, Isaiah Langley, Ykili Ross, Sam Darnold, Tyler Petite, Ronald Jones II, Aca'cedric Ware, Dominic Davis, Rasheem Green and De'Quan Hampton for starters.

Lots of plays being made by those guys. That's what this was about. Was it a smooth, finished product ready for the Pac-12? Not exactly, maybe. But probably farther along than the USC team that went to Stanford last year and somehow survived.

And this year's Stanford game is more than a month away. There's a lot of time to refine this and figure it all out. But what you can't refine is talent. Speed, size, skill sets: You either have it or you don't. Lots of these guys do.

That's in addition to enough talented upperclassmen who might almost be able to survive this schedule thanks to the returnees and rehabbers back on the field.

We're talking Chad Wheeler, eager to get back for full-contact team work exactly nine months after his knee surgery and looking like he could but waiting for the final doctor's clearance. He's ahead of schedule.

Ditto for Jabari Ruffin and Lamar Dawson, although Lamar had a couple of cracked ribs that kept him out Monday.

Then there's a senior like Greg Townsend Jr., healthy and happy with the chance he's getting as a senior. "I can play faster, I really feel good out there. That's the thing about this D-line -- as a group, we can all do that."

And if they can't, someone like the 6-foot-4, 325-pound Jacob Daniel, just turned 18, looks like he's ready to step in. Looks like an NFL guy when he walks by, to be honest. Only bigger.

Which is where guys like Cam Smith and Porter Gustin come in. Smith, hobbled a bit, went out there like a tough veteran in Dawson's absence. And Gustin, at 6-5 and 250, went out there like a bigger -- some were saying -- Brian Cushing, although we don't remember Brian getting three sacks in his first scrimmage.

And with no Kevon Seymour for a few days with a bruised knee, no problem. You have four freshmen to mix and match in there.

Or you go with a guy like Jonathan Lockett, who probably should have redshirted as a freshman himself last fall.

But the tough lessons learned then, especially at the end of that Arizona win when it was sink or swim for the Mater Dei alum as a freshman corner, are paying off now.

"That's fair to say," secondary coach Keith Heyward said. "That should be the case for all our guys."

One other thing that USC wants for all the guys is the ability to play press coverage the entire game. That's where the deep rotations come in. And the athleticism we're seeing here.

"We want them to play close," Heyward said the way Biggie Marshall played Juju Smith-Schuster all night with a near-Pick-Six off that only a dropped football before getting to the end zone prevented. Rookie mistake but only after a big rookie play.

Another freshman, Marvell Tell, playing a perfect center field at safety had gotten Cody Kessler earlier on an overthrow.

"We want to contest those balls, to tip them and go get them," Heyward said. Which is exactly what happened on Lockett's interception after redshirt freshman linebacker Olajuwon Tucker came through Darreus Rogers batting the ball in the air for Lockett to corral.

"Keeping you eyes on the quarterback really helps," Lockett says now that he feels like he knows the defense and how he fits in. But keeping your eye on the ball might help more.

Which is exactly what happened on a Leon McQuay blocked field goal that Lockett scooped and scored from 65 yards out. "Coach [Chris] Wilson told us we had a play and we were going to block it and we should just keep running. So that's what I did."

Which brings us to a veteran like McQuay, whom Sark praised and said how he "may be getting overlooked," although that's hard to do on a kick block that had McQuay, firing through the gap another veteran Soma Vainuku created by taking on the end, and doing so quickly "I think I blocked it with my back," Leon said as he was passing by the point of contact.

But this was hardly all defense. Sure the quarterbacks, for some reason, weren't quite as sharp as you -- and they -- would have liked. But if there was a player who came out of this scrimmage with the most positive perception, it had to be senior tailback Tre Madden.

As he has all fall, on that rehabbed foot after surgery, Tre was quick strong, powerful, elusive and caught the ball like he always has downfield. There was absolutely nothing not to like from the 223-pounder.

But he wasn't alone. Back from his hamstring, Justin Davis had a couple of dynamic runs. As did fast freshman Ronald Jones. He's going to be very good and impossible not to have on the field. He's just too dangerous.

And that was with USC "rolling in three lines" and how "that may not have been fair" to those guys, Sark said. But this is how USC is rolling right now. Getting lots of guys into the rotations.

If there was one number that jumped out on the positive side, it was the way USC went more than 120 plays, all of which went to the ground, and with no injuries. And with very few missed tackles. Not a bad combination.

With no Wheeler and Viane Talamaivao out still with a hamstring, redshirt freshman Chris Brown started at right guard -- there's one more player that people maybe didn't count on. So this team is not quite that smooth, together unit up front.

Maybe the same for Oklahoma tight end transfer Taylor McNamara, who got to go with the ones and for the first time the grad student looked like he belonged. We always thought he'd be able to block but he caught a couple of passes and ran routes like he was figuring things out since the blueshirt was not here for summer workouts.

But not to overlook the expectables like the physical, hard-working JuJu, who was there every play, getting the scoring going on an easy 20-yard route over the top from Cody.

Or the uber-explosive Steven Mitchell, who at times looks like he's taking the Nelson Agholor plant-and-go role to another level. A JuJu block sprung him for one TD and a pair of 360-degree moves on the same play almost got him another one.

And as we always say, in a warning to DBs everywhere: Do not go to sleep on Christian Tober. He will catch it and score on you.

So if we're doing the math right, there are more freshmen and more returnees ready to contribute than we would have imagined. No wonder getting them all on the field has clearly been a priority above getting this team to be a smoothly working finished product right now.

As it should be. But if that makes you a little bit uncomfortable -- Who are the starters? you want to know -- that's also as it should be.

This is a different world now for USC football. With different challenges.

And lots of possible answers. Just not quite yet. But they're coming.

CHECK THIS OUT: For more details and play-by-play on Monday's scrimmage, check out FALL PRACTICE 11 MONDAY SCRIMMAGE GHOST NOTES.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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