USC opens the 2014 season in just over two weeks against Fresno State, and there is one priority for head coach Steve Sarkisian in that time: keep his team healthy.
The Trojans' second week of fall camp started with the loss of linebacker Jabari Ruffin to a season-ending knee injury, and assorted other players sat out this week to heal minor maladies.
But with some Trojans sidelined, others capitalized in the spotlight. One such opportunist is sophomore running back Justin Davis.
Justin Davis, RB, Sophomore
Last season's leading rusher, Javorius "Buck" Allen, was held out Wednesday with a shoulder injury. His absence gave Davis additional carries, and he made the most of them.
"I thought Justin played really well," Sarkisian said Wednesday, per Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com. "We've been challenging Justin. He's coming off the foot injury and we're really just trying to get his confidence back. I thought he competed at a very high level."
Davis was promising in 2013, putting together games of 74 yards rushing against Hawaii, 96 yards against Boston College and 122 yards against Arizona State. However, a foot injury midway through his freshman campaign brought it to a premature end.
A healthy Davis factors into a three-man backfield with Allen and Tre Madden. All that talent might translate into too few carries to go around, but Madden sees the rotation elevating the entire trio.
"We just all work. We have our own talents and we push each other," Madden told Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register. "We always say that it’s steel sharpening steel. There’s a lot of good players making each other better every day."
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Giving players with minor injuries time to recover is crucial. But even with the inherent risk, Sarkisian and his staff must keep repetitions high in order to ready the team for the nation's No. 17 most difficult schedule per Phil Steele, via FBSchedules.com.
Such is the tightrope USC will walk all season, playing with fewer than 70 scholarship players on the roster. The limitations in numbers necessitate newcomers and reserves being ready to contribute, and the second week of fall camp offered promising signs to that end.
John Plattenburg and Jonathan Lockett are two such Trojans vying for a prominent role in the defense.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Hawkins continues to draw rave reviews. Hawkins had an opportunity to take on first-team repetitions in Week 1, with starting cornerback Kevon Seymour recovering from illness.
Hawkins continues to establish himself as a potential difference-maker in a Trojans secondary seeking depth.
Redshirt senior Gerald Bowman is also looking to make himself a prominent part of the Trojans defense. The nation's No. 3 overall junior-college recruit in 2012 per 247Sports, injuries stunted Bowman's progression last season.
"To have another opportunity, I'm hungry man. I'm just trying to get better every day, get my unit better every day," Bowman told Evan Budrovich of ConquestChronicles.com.
Cody Kessler is USC's Week 1 starting quarterback barring a drastic change. Sarkisian was complimentary of Kessler's grasp of the uptempo offense at last month's Pac-12 media days.
"He won a lot of games and I think that shows in his play," Sarkisian said. "He's ultra-competitive."
The redshirt junior took a tumble Wednesday that could have dramatically altered the complexion of the USC offense. After his spill, Sarkisian offered his diagnosis to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times:
"Bruised pride, bruised ego," Sarkisian said.
Kessler regrouped, as Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News noted in his unofficial score sheet of Wednesday's scrimmage.
Former 5-star recruit and redshirt freshman Max Browne also had an opportunity to show off his arm Wednesday.
Sarkisian said at media days that all positions are fluid, but the quarterback competition has been more or less set since April. The Trojans' offensive line is only now beginning to take shape after two weeks of camp.
The biggest piece of the puzzle—literally—came into place this week. Zach Banner, the 6'9", 350-pound redshirt sophomore, is on track to start Week 1 at right tackle per Klein.
Offensive line coach Tim Drevno must hope Banner is a chip off the old block; he's the son of former Washington All-American and NFL All-Pro Lincoln Kennedy.
One Trojan Drevno will not have in his lineup is freshman Jordan Austin.
A 3-star signee in February's recruiting class, Austin enrolled early and participated in spring practices. The other tackle prospect from the new class, Chris Brown, moves closer to a contributing role as a result.
With the team's depth concerns, Sarkisian isn't bashful about giving youngsters opportunities.
"We're going to need some...of these guys to be real contributors,” Sarkisian told Klein. "And the only way that's going to happen is by throwing them in there.”
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