USC Football, Freshman Watch: Who Made The Best First Impression?


USC football starting the season off against two teams from the weakest conference in FBS was a bittersweet pill to swallow. For fans, it’s mostly bitter.

RELATED: 15 Ways USC Fans Can Trash Talk Stanford

Games kickoff at an ungodly late hour on a network that isn’t carried by all major TV providers. Players put up EA Sports-level stats that they will almost assuredly never come close to for the rest of the season, allowing possible weaknesses to be masked and making it difficult to gauge just how well a team can perform in later weeks. Any intrigue is completely removed for anyone except the most compulsive of gamblers as games are decided by seven touchdowns.

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When it comes down to it though, for this Trojan squad, a pair of cupcakes were as welcome as several inches of rain to drought-addled San Joaquin Valley farmlands.

More than a dozen freshmen were sent on to the field to get meaningful playing time these past two weeks, allowing them to get accustomed to playing in front of 82,000 on Saturdays instead of 2,000 on Fridays. They got a chance to get a feel for how Coach Sark’s up-tempo offense works in full competition, while the defense used their newfound depth to establish the rotations that will hopefully prevent the fourth-quarter collapses that plagued the Trojans last year from happening again.

There’s only so much one can learn from these last two games, but several USC freshmen definitely got their college careers off to a great start. The question is, who gave the best first impression?

Let’s run down the list:

Osa Masina and Cameron Smith, LBs

These two freshmen took turns as interior linebackers and came away with great results. Masina showed excellent awareness against Arkansas State by recovering a dropped screen pass that was ruled to have been thrown to a receiver behind the QB and was therefore a fumbled lateral. Arkansas State didn’t realize it was a live ball, nor did most of the Coliseum crowd, but Masina paid attention and ran it back 46 yards for one of the weirdest touchdowns a player could ever have on his first day in uniform.

Smith, meanwhile, tallied a combined 13 tackles in the two games and nearly came away with an interception against the Red Wolves, demonstrating his potential to eat up passes in zone coverage. Stanford has been trying to get steady yard production between the hash marks, opening up large holes for runs between the tackles and shallow cross routes, so Smith could have a lot of plays headed his way this Sunday.

Porter Gustin, LB

The outside linebacker is already getting comparisons to the great hard-hitters of the Carroll Era like Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga.

He has five tackles after two weeks, along with a few backfield disruptions that could point to Gustin as the man to force strip sacks against Stanford like the one that gave USC the win over the Farm last year.

Iman Marshall, CB

In the last Freshman Watch, it was noted that strong performances from the youngest members of the secondary can help take the pressure off of Adoree Jackson to make big plays on both sides of the ball to keep the momentum on the Trojans’ side.

When Jackson was forced into an early exit against Arkansas State, Marshall stepped up, playing more downs than anyone else on the SC defense.

With Jackson back to full health against Idaho and the offense at full throttle, Marshall didn’t have as big a presence this past Saturday. Still, Marshall has made a strong opening case for his reliability and could be called upon to be a shutdown corner against formidable Pac-12 competition.

Since Kevon Seymour tweaked his knee against Idaho and is questionable for Stanford, Marshall’s involvement could be even more than expected going forward.

Ronald Jones II, RB

This young man, beyond any shadow of a doubt, made the biggest first impression not just among USC freshmen, but among all Pac-12 freshmen (a certain Bruin QB notwithstanding).

In two games, he has accumulated 169 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, including two big 44-yard dashes.

Fellow freshmen Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis also performed well, but RoJo II will be the one that shares handoffs with Tre Madden and Justin Davis next week.

The question is whether Viane Talmaivao and the O-Line can provide enough holes and downfield blocks to let the backfield stretch their legs.

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