Kedon Slovis stood near the goal line Saturday, with four chances to find the end zone in the final moments of USC’s second and final scrimmage. After two weeks of camp, plenty of questions still remained about USC’s offense — from the backfield to the offensive line — but for one afternoon, those concerns briefly abated.
The offense was finally moving. The line was opening lanes in the run game, allowing speedy back Kenan Christon to break multiple big plays. Slovis, with more reps, finally found a rhythm.
“It was good to see,” coach Clay Helton said. “I just felt overall we were more in rhythm. I thought our whole team, even special teams, looked a lot better today. So I thought our whole team took a step forward.”
But at the goal line, in their final chance of fall camp, Slovis and the offense came up short. Four straight passes fell incomplete. On the next two-minute drive, freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart was picked off in the end zone by freshman corner Prophet Brown.
On an afternoon that offered some clarity as to where USC is headed, it was a disconcerting note to end on — and, perhaps, a fitting one, too.
— The changing of the guard — or, should we say “tackle” — very quietly came last Monday. USC’s coaches had left Jalen McKenzie, a two-year starter, installed at right tackle for most of the first week of camp. But on Monday, redshirt freshman Jonah Monheim took his place on the right side. It’s been clear since that he won’t be giving it back.
Monheim and fellow redshirt freshman Courtland Ford were paired again as USC’s offensive tackles on Saturday. Afterwards, Helton all but admitted that his first-team offensive line is officially set.
“I think we've kind of settled in on right and left — you've probably seen that for yourselves,” Helton said. “We have another really physical practice on Tuesday, our last one before we really put in game plan, and we'll hunker into kind of where we're at.”
There could theoretically still be adjustments on the interior, but considering the experience and constant presence this fall of left guard Andrew Vorhees, center Brett Neilon, and right guard Liam Jimmons on USC’s first-team offense, any further adjustments would qualify as quite a surprise.
— No formal announcements have been made, and Helton said he wants to watch the two freshmen play out one more practice. But as soon as Dart took the field on Saturday and completed his first three passes in quick succession to lead the scrimmage’s first scoring drive, it was abundantly clear the battle at backup quarterback was already won.
Dart was sharp once again in USC’s second fall scrimmage, reminding once again why the freshman was first anointed as the favorite in spring. He hit wideout Tahj Washington for multiple long gains Saturday and rifled a beautiful ball to freshman Michael Trigg down the seam for a crucial first down during a two-minute drill.
That drive ultimately ended with an end zone interception. But the totality of Dart’s performance over the course of camp has made the backup decision pretty clear-cut. Considering how USC’s coaches used Dart over fellow freshman Miller Moss on Saturday, it seems they understand that, too.
— For the past week, Keaontay Ingram has waited patiently to return from a minor ankle injury he suffered in the opening week of camp. He sat on the sideline again as a precaution Saturday; though, Helton said he’ll return with plenty of reps in the coming week.
USC’s caution with the Texas transfer back says far more about Ingram’s upcoming role than it does his current injury. His prolonged camp absence hasn’t affected his standing in USC’s backfield by any stretch. His role atop the backfield was presumably secure before fall even began.
Vavae Malepeai seems likely to start the season as the 1B to Ingram’s 1A, but don’t be surprised if TCU transfer Darwin Barlow starts to earn opportunities early on, especially in two-back sets. Barlow has been nursing a hamstring injury, but had plenty of people talking at the start of camp.
— As the pieces fall into place on USC’s offense, the rotation at receiver remains the most unsettled on the team. After Drake London, no one has yet separated themselves from the pack.
Washington did his best to secure one of those roles after struggling in the first scrimmage. The shifty transfer from Memphis had several explosive catch-and-runs on Saturday, highlighting the playmaking ability he’s flashed all camp. But his hands haven’t always been consistent, and other receivers are jockeying to establish themselves.
Freshman Joseph Manjack has been the most impressive first-year receiver in camp by a mile and seems assured of a role of some kind. Michael Jackson III, another freshman, got the nod to start over Washington on Saturday.
— At this point, there should be no debate that USC’s defensive line will be the team’s greatest strength this season. The return of electric edge rusher Drake Jackson has only made that more evident.
Since returning from health and safety protocols, a fully rested Jackson has been on the warpath, reeling in sack after sack. He added another on Saturday, then during a goal-line stand, he swatted down one of Slovis’ passes at the line.
Add Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa — both 20 pounds heavier than last season — to that mix, plus freshman Korey Foreman, who, through two weeks, has already flashed his elite talent, and the Trojans could be truly great up front.
Getting back defensive tackle Jamar Sekona, who sat in health and safety protocols for more than a week, makes the group even more formidable.
Depth, however, is another question entirely.
— Count on freshmen contributing this season. Some, like Manjack or Foreman or Jackson III, have already locked in roles. Others, like linebacker Raesjon Davis, tight end Trigg, cornerback Brown or safety Calen Bullock, could carve out their place in the rotation before too long.
“That’s what we always say coming here,” Helton said. “The best players are always going to play. As those kids grow, they’re going to garner bigger roles.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.