USC takeaways: Lincoln Riley notes defense’s progress and more

A week of USC’s first preseason camp under coach Lincoln Riley is on the books. Here’s what we learned:

defensive advances

You can understand why the Trojans’ new offensive weapons got all the attention in rebuilding USC. There’s the Heisman Trophy nominee quarterback, the two wide receivers from last season’s All-Pac-12 conference, the redesigned backfield.

But after a week of practice, Riley realized which side of the ball was better.

The defense, he said Friday, is “without a doubt the dominant group.”

That’s a very positive sign for USC, which faced major defense depth problems in the spring. The Trojans only had a handful of defensive backs and rush ends back then. Reinforcements through the transfer portal made themselves felt early on.

USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon warms up during a practice session April 5, 2022.

Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon, pictured in April, appears to be USC’s best cornerback.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

cornerback fight

There is little doubt at this point that Mekhi Blackmon will be USC’s best cornerback. The move from Colorado has consistently received rave reviews since signing with the Trojans before spring. But after Blackmon, USC seems to have the second cornerstone.

Five-star newcomer Domani Jackson is the most interesting candidate for the position. After missing spring while recovering from a knee ligament injury, the former Mater Dei cornerback and front-runner in the 2022 class has already shown his immense talent at camp. If he can catch up mentally, he’ll have the tools to fight for that spot sooner rather than later.

Others to keep an eye on: Josh Jackson, Washington transfer Jacobe Covington and Ceyair Wright, who Riley said made a big leap over the summer.

“He’s a much better player now than he was in the spring,” Riley said of Wright.

USC defenseman Domani Jackson (1) conducts a drill in practice during the first day of fall training camp August 5, 2022.

Trojans defender Domani Jackson (1) conducts a drill in training during the first day of fall training camp August 5.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

passing options

We didn’t see much of reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison as reporters are limited to the first 20 minutes of practice. But what’s clear with the Pittsburgh transfer in the fold is how deep USC is at wideout.

Addison and Mario Williams are USC’s top two receivers. If Terrell Bynum and Brenden Rice are alongside them on the depth chart — and they very well could be — the Trojans’ top four receivers this season would all be new transfers.

Foreman’s prognosis

That camp appeared to be an especially important opportunity for Korey Foreman to prove himself as the poster-worthy talent USC believed he could be as he signed as the crown jewel of his recruiting class in 2021. But after an uncertain spring, Foreman missed most of last week, first from a previous commitment and then from an injury that left him unable to dress on Friday.

Riley said the injury was “nothing too serious” and he should be back in the coming days. But his early absence opens the door for other pass rushers to push past him on the depth chart.

Solomon Byrd, a transfer from Wyoming, could be one of the main beneficiaries. Byrd was a bit out of shape when he arrived in the summer, Riley said, and he’s still learning the rush-end position on USC defense. But his raw tools combined with his experience made for a strong start to camp.

“You can tell he played along,” Riley said. “He took up our plans very quickly. A guy who can of course attack the passer-by. He has moved and also played different positions for us.”

Byrd certainly seems to be considering USC’s defense this season, whether it’s at the end of the rush or somewhere further inside.

USC defenseman Jamar Sekona (77) and teammates practice Aug. 5.

USC defenseman Jamar Sekona (77) and teammates practice Aug. 5.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

O line rotation

Transfer offensive tackles are a rare commodity these days, and when the Trojans caught one from Virginia this offseason, it seemed safe to assume Bobby Haskins was guaranteed a spot on the starting line.

That was not the case for at least a week of camp. Haskins works with the second-team offensive line during the open portion of practice behind Courtland Ford, who is still the starter in the left tackle. Jonah Monheim appears – at least for now – to be firmly anchored in the right tackle.

Apparently no tackle has looked better than Monheim, whom Riley singled out as one of USC’s most consistent players up front.

When was the last time USC’s offensive line was laid out like this early in camp? The addition of an experienced left tackle and the return of an All-American guard doesn’t hurt.

The only question for the Trojans up front is depth, and Riley and offensive line coach Josh Henson seemed encouraged by what they’d seen from redshirt junior guard Gino Quinones and redshirt freshman tackle Mason Murphy.

Quinones, who hasn’t played a shot on offense in his last three seasons, could be a particularly pleasant surprise.

“Gino was the standout for us at the moment,” Riley said.

Wolfe paused

Jude Wolfe should be a breakout candidate as an H-back on Riley’s offense, but a foot injury will sideline him for at least half the season. Wolfe will be operated on in the coming days and could return in time for the second half of the season.

It’s a tough break for Wolfe, who climbed the depth chart in the spring and expressed hope he’s finally found the right offense to match his ability. That arrival will have to wait and leaves the H-Back spot uncertain to start the season.

Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams makes a pass during practice August 5.

Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams makes a pass during practice August 5.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

beginners to watch

Two freshmen keeping an eye on the rest of the camp, both of whom played on the same Mater Dei offense last fall: running back Raleek Brown and wide receiver CJ Williams.

There’s a clear USC offensive plan for Brown that has the potential to be an all-purpose threat capable of catching passes from the backfield.

“Oh man, that kid is a little jitterbug,” said senior running back Travis Dye.

Unlike Brown, Williams was present in the spring. But an injury prevented him and delayed his arrival. In the first week of camp, he’s already been working with the first-team offense on early rush packages.

Riley wasn’t ready to declare Williams a part of USC’s receiver rotation, but it seems the newcomer has an inside track for some sort of involvement.

“He’s everything we hoped and expected,” Riley said. USC takeaways: Lincoln Riley notes defense’s progress and more

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