USC's depleted depth will give players experience needed

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22, 2022: First year USC football coach Lincoln Riley interacts with wide receiver Kyron Ware-Hudson (10) from Mater Dei during spring practice at USC on March 22, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC coach Lincoln Riley interacts with wide receiver Kyron Ware-Hudson during spring practice at USC. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Even after all of the regular trips to the transfer portal, Lincoln Riley had never started spring with such little depth. Just 60 healthy scholarship players were suited up for USC when camp began last month — so few that the coach briefly considered adapting his practices.

No position has felt that dearth of depth this spring more than the defensive back, where a mix of departures and injuries left cornerbacks coach Donte Williams working with just six healthy players at Thursday’s final practice. One was L Simpson, a walk-on. Another was injured five-star freshman Domani Jackson, who’s not likely to see the field Saturday as his knee continues to recover. The remaining four had just a single start among them.

Among that group, sophomore Prophet Brown, the owner of that single start, may as well be a seasoned vet. By this point in spring, he’s received more reps than he could count at cornerback. Others have bounced back and forth between positions in the secondary, cross-training to make up for a lack of depth on USC’s current defense.

“Sometimes one play [off] is a blessing,” Brown said of his place in USC’s thin rotation. “Sometimes you don’t get a play. Sometimes you have to wait until the next period and thug it out.”

There shouldn’t be much waiting around for Brown during the spring game. With USC’s defense facing off directly against its offense, there’s only so much room to rotate. Likely starter Mekhi Blackmon, who transferred from Colorado, has sat out the past week with an injury and isn’t expected to play. Neither is Domani Jackson or redshirt sophomore Josh Jackson.

That leaves Brown, Ceyair Wright and a band of unproven outside corners to hold down the fort Saturday. For the few still standing, it’s been an invaluable experience.

“You look at the rep count of an individual, and you're like good lord that guy played dang near every snap of seven-on-seven or an individual played corner, safety and nickel all in the same practice,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “I think long term, I think bigpicture, I think it's extremely valuable.”

USC cornerback Prophet Brown is tackled by San Jose State cornerback Nehemiah Shelton.
USC cornerback Prophet Brown is tackled by San Jose State cornerback Nehemiah Shelton during a game on Sept. 4, 2021, at the Coliseum. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Cornerback is hardly the only position that’s dealt with depth issues this spring. Offensive line is down to 13 scholarship players. Running back has just three, only one of which is a returner.

At rush linebacker, USC currently has just five players, four of whom changed positions after last season. The fifth is Romello Height, a transfer from Auburn. None have any starting experience.

“We definitely have to add guys, I think, at every position,” rush linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “Our team is aware of that — it's not a surprise. We're under the number that we need to be to be a good team, so I'm excited to continue to add those pieces and help this thing grow and push and push because it isn't rebuilt. The expectation is to win.”

Some of those additions are sure to come in the secondary. But for one spring at least, Brown basically had starting reps — and an assistant coach — to himself.

“Getting the reps is really good,” Brown said. You get to see yourself on film more and more. You just get more opportunity to grow.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.