Impact Freshmen, Or Not?
Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Tuesday marked the beginning of something new at USC. Members of the Trojans’ 2019 recruiting class who didn’t enroll in January moved in, unofficially starting their collegiate careers.
The outlook for this freshman class had been bolstered in recent weeks with the addition of five-star athlete Bru McCoy and four-star corner Chris Steele. USC officially confirmed McCoy and Steele’s enrollment this week.
A class that was essentially considered a disappointment back in February is generating excitement in June. And now that the 2019 class has made its way to campus, it’s worth examining which of the newcomers stand to actually make an impact on the field this fall.
Let’s start with the freshmen who we saw in the spring …
OLB/DE Drake Jackson (6-4, 260) Jackson took a few steps upfield and moved past an offensive lineman before he diagnosed the play and stopped his momentum. Then, he snatched Jack Sears’ pass out of the air with his left hand, brought it to his body and raced some 45 yards for a score in USC’s spring showcase.
Jackson, who chose the Trojans over Arizona State in a fierce recruiting battle last December, possesses the size and the athletic ability to be a true impact player up front — which is something USC lacked last season. Throughout the spring, Jackson was usually working with the first- or second-team defense.
Given his big-play potential, it doesn’t seem like it will be long before Jackson becomes a full-time starter.
DB Briton Allen (6-0, 185) Allen didn’t receive a ton of hype as a recruit. He was a three-star prospect often overshadowed by an abundance of four- and five-star prospects at IMG Academy.
And it was a surprise when he flipped from Georgia Tech and signed with USC on the opening day of the early signing period. But despite all that, he was someone the Trojans had to count on this spring.
Due to injuries and some flirtation with the transfer portal, Allen opened the spring as a starter at corner. At IMG, Allen played safety but it seems like his athleticism caught some of the staff by surprise so his versatility proved valuable.
By the end of spring, Allen, who was viewed as something of a raw prospect at IMG, was getting first-team reps at safety. USC’s two starting safeties — Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao — have had some tough injury luck and were limited because of that during spring practice.
It seems like Allen will be playing safety when practices resume in early August, and at the very least he’ll be counted on for depth in a thin secondary and could be thrust into the starting lineup in case of an emergency.
CB Max Williams (5-9, 175) We didn’t get to see Williams in 11-on-11 action in the spring. The four-star corner is coming off an ACL tear, which essentially limited him to non-contact drills.
But by all indications, Williams’ rate of progress was encouraging. It’s likely he’ll be cleared for full contact once fall camp arrives and be ready for the season. The Trojans are thin at corner and he and Steele are the two best such players they signed.
Enrolling early gave Williams a chance to grasp the defensive scheme as well, so he should factor into the corner rotation this fall.
Now onto some of the players who arrived on campus this week …
WR Kyle Ford (6-2, 212) The good thing for USC is it won’t have to count on Ford to produce this fall, which will allow him to come back fully from an ACL tear he suffered last year at his own pace.
Ford, who likes to compare his game to JuJu Smith-Schuster, was a five-star prospect before his injury and tweeted a few weeks ago that he’d been cleared by doctors. What and how much he can actually do at the moment remains to be seen but the Trojans have a stable of veteran receivers — Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — they can rely on.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Ford, who was the top-rated receiver in the state, comes along slowly and then sees the field more as the season progresses and his confidence in his knee grows.
The wild cards
CB Chris Steele (6-1, 185) While at Florida during spring practice, Steele worked with the first-team defense as the Gators struggled with injuries at corner.
Steele had some expected growing pains at Florida but at the very least, he would have been the Gators’ third or fourth corner and a starter next year. Now he’s arriving at USC where the secondary depth is much thinner. If he’s eligible, it’s logical to assume Steele will play right away.
Olaijah Griffin, who was a five-star prospect in the 2018 class, will likely start at one corner spot once he returns from a shoulder injury. Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Greg Johnson seemed like they’d battle for the other starting corner job, but if Steele’s ruled eligible, he’ll have a say in that competition as well.
Johnson started several games last season but was plagued by inconsistency and injuries. Taylor-Stuart battled an ankle injury and redshirted last season before working with the first-team defense all spring. So there’s an opening for Steele to take.
WR Bru McCoy (6-2, 212) McCoy’s journey brought him back to USC, but he’s stuck in a similar situation to the one he was in at Texas: In need of an NCAA waiver in order to play this fall. But USC is in a position — as mentioned with Ford — where it wouldn’t necessarily need McCoy to produce this season anyway.
Since there’s no precedent for McCoy’s situation — starting off at one school, transferring to another only to transfer back to your original school all before appearing in a game — it seems unlikely he’d be granted a waiver but that’s up to the NCAA.
McCoy is a sizeable target at receiver and impressed at Texas during spring practice. He was the best player on the best high school team in the country last season and consistently made plays in Mater Dei’s biggest games — against IMG Academy, St. John Bosco and De La Salle (Concord, Calif.).
It’s hard to imagine he won’t do the same at USC. It’s just a matter of when — this fall or next?