USC takeaways: Lincoln Riley notes defense's progress, standout O-linemen and more

USC football players pose at media day Aug. 4, 2022, in Los Angeles.
USC football players pose at media day Aug. 4, the day before fall camp began. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

One week of USC’s first preseason camp under coach Lincoln Riley is in the books. This is what we've learned:

Defensive progress

You can understand why the Trojans’ new offensive weapons have gotten all the attention amid USC’s rebuild. There's the Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, the two preseason All-Pac-12 Conference wide receivers, the remade backfield.

But through one week of practice, Riley was clear about which side of the ball has been better.

The defense, he said Friday, has been “the dominant group without a doubt.”

That’s a very positive sign for USC, which faced major depth issues on defense in the spring. The Trojans had only a handful of defensive backs and rush ends then. Reinforcements through the transfer portal have clearly made a difference early on.

USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon warms up during a practice April 5, 2022.
Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon, pictured in April, appears set to be USC's top cornerback. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Cornerback battle

There’s little doubt at this point that Mekhi Blackmon will be USC’s top cornerback. The Colorado transfer has received consistent, effusive praise since signing with the Trojans ahead of spring. But after Blackmon, USC’s second corner spot appears to be up for grabs.

Five-star freshman Domani Jackson is the most intriguing candidate at the position. After missing the spring while recovering from a knee ligament injury, the former Mater Dei cornerback and top state prospect in the 2022 class has already flashed his immense talent at camp. If he can catch up mentally, he has the tools to challenge for that spot sooner rather than later.

Others to keep an eye on: Josh Jackson, Washington transfer Jacobe Covington and Ceyair Wright, whom Riley said took a major leap over the summer.

“He’s a much better player now than he was in the spring,” Riley said of Wright.

USC defensive back Domani Jackson (1) runs a drill at practice during the first day of fall training camp Aug. 5, 2022.
Trojans defensive back Domani Jackson (1) runs a drill at practice during the first day of fall training camp Aug. 5. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Passing options

We haven’t seen much from reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison, with reporters restricted to the first 20 minutes or so of practice. But what is clear with the Pittsburgh transfer in the fold is how deep USC is at wideout.

Addison and Mario Williams are locks as USC’s top two receivers. If Terrell Bynum and Brenden Rice slot in alongside them on the depth chart — and they very well could — the Trojans’ top four receivers this season would all be new transfers.

Foreman's forecast

This camp seemed like a particularly important opportunity for Korey Foreman to prove himself as the billboard-worthy talent USC believed he could be when he signed in 2021 as the crown jewel of its recruiting class. But after an uncertain spring, Foreman missed most of the last week, first because of a previous commitment and then because of an injury that left him unable to dress Friday.

Riley said the injury is “nothing too severe” and that he should be back in the coming days. But his early absence opens the door for other pass rushers to push past him on the depth chart.

Solomon Byrd, a Wyoming transfer, could be one of the main beneficiaries. Byrd was a bit out of shape when he arrived in the summer, Riley said, and he’s still learning the rush end position in USC’s defense. But his raw tools combined with his experience have made for a strong start to camp.

“You can tell he’s played ball,” Riley said. “He’s picked up our schemes very quickly. A guy that can naturally rush the passer. He’s moved around and played different positions for us as well.”

Byrd seems sure to factor in on USC’s defense this season, whether at rush end or somewhere further inside.

USC defensive lineman Jamar Sekona (77) and teammates practice Aug. 5.
USC defensive lineman Jamar Sekona (77) and teammates practice Aug. 5. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

O-line rotation

Transfer offensive tackles are a rare commodity these days, so when the Trojans reeled one in from Virginia this offseason, it seemed safe to assume that Bobby Haskins was assured a spot on the starting line.

That hasn’t been the case through at least one week of camp. Haskins is working with the second-team offensive line during the open portion of practice behind Courtland Ford, who is still the starter at left tackle. Jonah Monheim appears — for the time being, at least — to be entrenched at right tackle.

No tackle has apparently looked better than Monheim, whom Riley singled out as one of USC’s most consistent performers up front.

When is the last time USC’s offensive line has been this settled at the start of camp? The addition of an experienced left tackle and the return of an All-American guard don’t hurt.

The only question for the Trojans up front is depth, and Riley and offensive line coach Josh Henson seemed encouraged by what they had seen from redshirt junior guard Gino Quinones and redshirt freshman tackle Mason Murphy.

Quinones, who hasn’t played a snap on the offensive line in his previous three seasons, could be a particularly pleasant surprise.

“Gino has been the standout there for us right now,” Riley said.

Wolfe sidelined

Jude Wolfe was in line to be a breakout candidate as an H-back in Riley’s offense, but a foot injury will keep him out for at least half the season. Wolfe will undergo surgery in the coming days and could return in time for the second half of the season.

It’s a tough break for Wolfe, who rose up the depth chart in spring and expressed hope that he had finally found the right offense for his skill set. That arrival will have to wait, leaving the H-back spot uncertain to start the season.

Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams follows through on a pass at practice Aug. 5.
Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams follows through on a pass at practice Aug. 5. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Rookies to watch

Two freshmen to keep an eye on the rest of camp, both of whom played on the same Mater Dei offense last fall: running back Raleek Brown and wide receiver C.J. Williams.

There’s a clear plan on USC’s offense for Brown, who has the potential to be an all-purpose threat, capable of catching passes out of the backfield.

“Oh man, that kid’s a little jitterbug,” senior running back Travis Dye said.

Unlike Brown, Williams was in attendance during the spring. But an injury kept him out, delaying his arrival. By the first week of camp, he has already worked in with the first-team offense on early hurry-up packages.

Riley wasn’t ready to declare Williams a part of USC’s receiver rotation, but it seems the freshman has an inside track for some kind of involvement.

“He’s what we hoped and expected he would be,” Riley said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.