The USC Trojans have seven incoming freshman football players already on campus, and six more set to enroll for the fall semester. They’re projected to be well under the roster limit, and with key players graduating or leaving early for the NFL, there will be more opportunities for first-year players to play early and often.
The national trend recently has been to lure top recruits with offers of early playing time, rather than selling them on a redshirt year and an eventual chance at greatness. Over the last few seasons, several USC true freshman have excelled immediately: quarterback Matt Barkley, receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and cornerback Nickell Robey.
Three of those four are off to the NFL, opening spots for the next group of college-ready rookies to become stars. So, of this year’s small class, which players are most likely to get significant playing time immediately?
Safety Su’a Cravens could be in line for a breakout freshman season. The No. 1 safety prospect in the nation, Cravens was a versatile player in high school but will have a chance to make an immediate impact in the depleted USC secondary.
USC also landed the No. 2 safety prospect, Leon McQuay III. Both players are already on campus as early enrollees and will have equal chances of logging significant playing time in 2013.
The cornerback position is an even more dire need for the Trojans. In 2012, the spot opposite Robey was one of the weakest areas on the defense; it improved slightly when transfer Josh Shaw moved from safety to corner. Shaw could shift back to safety this season, and with Robey leaving early for the NFL, that would leave both cornerback positions open this fall.
One of them might be filled by four-star recruit Chris Hawkins, the No. 8 safety in the nation. Hawkins is fast with good hands – he also played receiver in high school – and he could boost the USC secondary beginning this spring.
Running back Justin Davis likely won’t start, but he could log plenty of time on the field this year. The Trojans have Silas Redd at tailback again this year, but he can’t take every carry. Redshirt junior D.J. Morgan has played well in bursts the last two seasons but has yet to play consistently. Davis will be competing with him, converted linebacker Tre Madden, and fellow frosh Ty Isaac for the backup role, and he’ll have a solid foundation after participating in spring ball.
The player everyone wants to speculate about is five-star quarterback Max Browne. From Sammamish, Washington, Browne is the Gatorade National Player of the Year as well as the top quarterback prospect in the nation. After an unprecedented four seasons with Barkley as the starter, the Trojans need to find a new starting quarterback.
USC got a preview of one possible option, redshirt sophomore Max Wittek, at the end of 2012 when Barkley was injured. After the Notre Dame game, Wittek was giving the Trojan faithful a much-needed shot of confidence about the team’s outlook for 2013. After the Sun Bowl, on the other hand, USC supporters were already calling for Browne.
Wittek and the other backup, Cody Kessler, both came in just as highly touted as Barkley, and now Browne. Partway through last year, it seemed likely Wittek would succeed Barkley, Kessler would transfer, and Browne would wait his turn, but after the crash-and-burn ending to USC’s 2012 season, it’s anyone’s guess – and for the quarterbacks, it’s anyone’s job for the taking.