Five questions facing USC entering preseason football camp

At this time last year, we didn’t know what to expect from new USC coach Lincoln Riley. Could he really turn around the program in a single season?

Riley answered that question with 11 wins. Now in his second season, with the Heisman winner returning at quarterback, the expectation at USC is nothing short of a College Football Playoff semifinal bid.

Here are five questions USC faces as it opens its preseason training camp with bigger goals this week.

USC bolstered its defensive front. Will it make a difference?

USC linebacker Mason Cobb during practice.

USC linebacker Mason Cobb during practice at USC’s Brian Kennedy – Howard Jones Football Field on the campus of USC.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

The last time we saw USC’s defense, it was in the midst of being totally demoralized by Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. The embarrassing defeat drove home a point that had been simmering all season: USC desperately needed to get bigger, stronger and deeper up front.

It tried to do all three this offseason. USC added three behemoths up front in Anthony Lucas, Kyon Barrs and Bear Alexander, all three of whom weigh at least 290 pounds and should play major roles up front this fall. It got deeper at inside linebacker, adding Oklahoma State transfer Mason Cobb as well as a talented freshman in Tackett Curtis. It even added more edge rushers to put more pressure on the quarterback.

Whether that’s enough to turn around one of the nation’s worst defenses is unclear. Some of the onus for change falls on Alex Grinch, who finds himself at a fork in the road as USC’s defensive coordinator. He needs to get more out of the talent on the roster.

But bigger, stronger athletes — especially up front — can’t hurt. There’s no reason to think that USC will suddenly have a shutdown defense that outshines its high-flying offense. But even an average defense might be enough to turn the Trojans into College Football Playoff semifinal contenders.

How quickly can USC’s freshman pass catchers carve out a role?

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks with the team.

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks with the team following the spring game at the Coliseum on April 15.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Not since 2020, when Ohio State signed two five-star receivers in Jaxon Smith-Ngjiba and Julian Fleming, has a school added two top-20 overall prospects to their pass-catching corps in one recruiting class. Before that, it happened just twice in the previous decade.

So with both Zachariah Branch, ranked seventh nationally by 247 Sports, and Duce Robinson, ranked 19th, USC is in rarefied air with two top prospects. Both seem bound for stardom. The only question now is when they might start living up to that sky-high potential.

No position group on USC’s roster is deeper than wide receiver, where you can make a convincing case for at least six players to start before you even consider Branch and Robinson. The lighting-fast Branch spent the spring at USC, which should help him find his footing more quickly than Robinson. But Robinson’s physical tools are so significant, it’s hard to imagine he’d spend much time on the sidelines. Both will be among the most closely watched during camp.

Expect USC to use the depth to its advantage while bringing the pair along slowly, but eventually, the cream rises to the top. By the end of the season, don’t be surprised if both are major contributors.

How will USC’s secondary competition shake out?

USC defensive back Jacobe Covington catches an interception over USC wide receiver Josiah Zamora

USC defensive back Jacobe Covington (14) catches an interception over USC wide receiver Josiah Zamora in the final play of the spring game at the Coliseum.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Calen Bullock returns as one of the top safeties in the Pac-12, if not the nation. But beyond him, not much is settled in the Trojans’ secondary.

At cornerback, Ceyair Wright and Jacobe Covington both had strong showings in the spring, while Arizona transfer Christian Roland-Wallace sat out but earned rave reviews in the offseason. Then, there’s the matter of Domani Jackson, the top-rated recruit in California in 2022. Injuries slowed Jackson’s progress as a freshman, but as a 6-foot-1 former track star, no corner on USC’s roster has the tools that he boasts. Could he snag one of the corner spots?

The addition of Alabama transfer Tre’quon Fegans, a former top-100 prospect, the return of Zion Branch and the offseason buzz surrounding freshman safety Christian Pierce only adds intrigue to one of the most wide open competitions of USC’s preseason camp.

How will USC’s offensive line look this fall?

Florida offensive lineman Michael Tarquin waits for the snap.

Florida offensive lineman Michael Tarquin waits for the snap during a game against Utah on Sept. 3, 2022 in Gainesville, Fla.

(Gary McCullough / Associated Press)

USC lost three of its starters from an offensive line last season that helped Caleb Williams win the Heisman Trophy. But is it possible that the Trojans might actually be better up front in 2023?

That very well may be the case. USC added three experienced starters up front in Michael Tarquin, Jarrett Kingston and Emmanuel Pregnon, plus a freshman tackle with a ton of potential in Elijah Paige. And while it may take some time for a revamped unit to gel, there’s no denying USC has gotten bigger and stronger in the trenches, which should only help Williams as he sets out to repeat as a Heisman winner.

The question still looming over camp is how that group might be configured this fall. Tarquin took the lion’s share of reps at left tackle in the spring, while Kingston, who slotted there at Washington State, shifted inside to guard. Pregnon, a transfer from Wyoming, is likely to take the other guard spot.

Justin Dedich is locked in at center. But it’s still unclear where Jonah Monheim, arguably USC’s best lineman, is best used. Right tackle, where he started last season, seems like the obvious starting point, but multiple coaches have suggested his future is at guard. We should know soon enough how much Riley plans to fiddle with his front in fall camp.

Who will emerge as USC’s lead running back?

USC running back Austin Jones finds running room against Notre Dame.

USC running back Austin Jones (6) finds running room against Notre Dame in the first half at the Coliseum on Nov. 26, 2022.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Running backs coach Kiel McDonald made it clear in the past he prefers to have a bell cow back in place, even if multiple running backs sometimes share the workload during select games. Senior Austin Jones has more experience in Riley’s offense, and earned the trust of the staff down the stretch last season after Travis Dye’s season-ending injury. But can he hold off MarShawn Lloyd, the South Carolina transfer?

Lloyd is a bowling ball of a back who’s proven he can handle short-yardage situations and running off tackle. His yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus, were nearly a yard better than Jones last season. And he’s no slouch in the passing game, either.

How the competition for carries plays out between the Trojans’ experienced pair of backs is anyone’s guess as camp begins. But they aren’t the only two candidates for carries. Freshmen A’Marion Peterson and Quinten Joyner both stood out in the spring game, while redshirt senior Darwin Barlow has the skillset to steal some carries.

The group is so deep that former five-star propsect Raleek Brown is now listed officially as a receiver, although you can probably expect him to tote the rock a handful of times, too.