We are going to keep saying this so no USC fans get nervous: The USC roster was always going to be very fluid and a work in progress heading into the season opener against San Jose State. No one should have expected various position battles to be fully resolved.
USC released its first football depth chart for the 2023 season just before the Week 0 game Saturday versus San Jose State. One of the obvious details that jumps off the page is seven different position battles are unresolved. Seven different positions involve the word “OR” being placed in capital letters between two players or among three players.
No one should be surprised by this. No one.
We will repeat this next point, too: It doesn’t matter who is starting now (except for, of course, Caleb Williams and Justin Dedich). USC plays three very easy games to start the schedule, then has an off week on Saturday, Sept. 16. Who starts on Saturday, Sept. 23 at Arizona State matters a lot more than who starts against San Jose State. That’s when USC must begin to develop more of a hierarchy on the depth chart and discern which players really do make this team better at each spot.
Most of all, though, what matters is who starts on October 14 at Notre Dame. That’s when the coaching staff must be able to determine the right starters and the right roles.
With those important notes in mind, let’s go through the depth chart and all the stories attached to it:
READ THE FULL DEPTH CHART HERE
— Keely Eure (@keelyismyname) August 24, 2023
TACKETT CURTIS MAKES HISTORY
LB Tackett Curtis will be the first true freshman to start an opener at inside linebacker since Cameron Smith in 2015.
Prior to Smith, #USC had not had a true freshman season opening LB starter since 1978 (Riki Gray Ellison)
— Chris Treviño (@ChrisNTrevino) August 24, 2023
KOREY FOREMAN THIRD AT DEFENSIVE END BEHIND STARTER SOLOMON BYRD, BACKUP ROMELLO HEIGHT
No one should have expected Korey Foreman to be high on the depth chart, given the minimal impact he had on USC’s 2022 defense. If you’re still believing he can become a major impact player, you’re setting the bar too high at the moment.
However, Foreman should certainly play plenty of second-half snaps in these first few games. USC should blow out its opponents and create chances for live-game reps in which players can begin to improve their stock. It’s not over for Foreman, and we’re not writing him off, but no one should get his or her hopes up right now. This is a “we’ll believe it when we see it” story in terms of expecting major contributions. We just have to wait and see.
7 UNRESOLVED POSITIONS
Seven positions on the depth chart are unresolved. Let’s go through them, reminding you that these first few games of the season should shake up the depth chart heading into October, when the Trojans will need to establish a clearer pecking order on their 2023 roster:
KYRON HUDSON OR BRENDEN RICE AT ONE WIDE RECEIVER SPOT
No one should be concerned about this, as long as Rice eliminates the dropped passes that plagued him last season. In the Cotton Bowl, he played like a star. If USC gets that version of Rice, the Trojans will cook in the passing game.
ANTHONY LUCAS OR JAMIL MUHAMMAD AT RUSH END
The early games of the season should give us clarity on which player — Lucas or Muhammad — is the better choice as the starter here. They say there are no preseason games in college football, and that’s technically true, but these first three games before the Sept. 16 off week are essentially preseason games meant to give the coaching staff information.
JACK SULLIVAN OR STANLEY TA'UFO'OU AT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Is this a case of Sullivan not being as good as expected, or Ta’ufo’ou being better than expected? It’s hard to say, but we know USC needs something better at this position after last year’s woes.
KYON BARRS, BEAR ALEXANDER, OR DE'JON BENTON AT NOSE TACKLE
No one should be worried here. Barrs and Alexander should both get plenty of snaps against San Jose State, Nevada and Stanford. USC will hit mid-September with a better feel for how to use — and rotate — its nose tackles and its defensive linemen in general. Benton being in the mix for a starting role is quite noteworthy and an encouraging sign about his development.
EMMANUEL PREGNON OR ALANI NOA AT LEFT GUARD
USC offensive line coach Josh Henson was adept at mixing and matching in the 2022 season. He reshuffled positions wisely and kept a relatively thin offensive line functional despite injuries. It is notable that Alani Noa, as a freshman, is in the mix for the starting spot. Pregnon, the transfer from Wyoming, needs to see this as a challenge and a call to do better.
MAX WILLIAMS OR BRYSON SHAW AT FREE SAFETY
Zion Branch is the backup to Williams and Shaw. The secondary involves a number of fluid situations, and this one tops the list.
MARSHAWN LLOYD AND AUSTIN JONES AT RUNNING BACK
No one should be concerned about this listing on the depth chart. USC is deep at running back in 2023. Backups Darwin Barlow and Quinten Joyner should get lots of touches in these early games so that Lloyd and Jones are both fresh for the Notre Dame-Utah double-stack in mid-October. It would be coaching malpractice if Jones or Lloyd get noticeably high numbers of carries in the first month of the season. This is a time to spread the wealth and keep everyone fresh.
This is the last of the seven unresolved positions on the depth chart, but there’s more to discuss below:
MILLER MOSS AHEAD OF MALACHI NELSON ON QB DEPTH CHART
This is much more about Miller Moss improving than Malachi Nelson not improving. This is a good thing. Moss and Nelson both need to get a lot of work done in these first few games. USC needs to put San Jose State to bed by halftime, or at least the first five minutes of the third quarter, so that the backup quarterbacks get substantial playing time.
DOMANI JACKSON STARTS AT CORNER OVER JACOBE COVINGTON
Domani Jackson is a high-end talent. The coaches saw that the performance in practice has matched the potential. This is an exciting development for USC.
CHRISTIAN ROLAND-WALLACE NOT STARTING AT TRADITIONAL CORNER OR IN NICKEL
Roland-Wallace is behind Jaylin Smith at nickel and Ceyair Wright at corner. Nevertheless, he should get plenty of work in the early part of the season. We will find out if his backup status is due more to the quality play of the guys in front of him (the ideal scenario) or to his own struggles (the non-ideal scenario).
ZACHARIAH BRANCH THIRD AT RECEIVER BEHIND MARIO WILLIAMS, TAHJ WASHINGTON
No one should be alarmed here. Mario Williams was always the favorite to start at this wide receiver spot. Tahj Washington is really, really good. USC is just loaded at receiver. Branch will get his chances to make plays.
Starter versus backup will matter a great deal in October, when the schedule gets tough. Right now, don’t focus too much on that. Focus on the quality of performance you see against San Jose State, Nevada and Stanford. We will all have far more to talk about — and we will all be able to make better, more informed observations about position battles — during USC’s off week in mid-September.
These early season games are best seen as auditions for the second half of the season, when USC will begin to be tested at a high level. Seven unresolved positions is not a crisis in any way — right now.
If seven depth chart positions are still unclear on Oct. 14, then we will likely have a problem on our hands.
The coaching staff has over a month to figure out various position groups. That’s the luxury afforded by a soft first-half schedule to the season.