USC already faced uncertainty in its secondary with redshirt senior cornerback Josh Shaw sustaining two high ankle sprains over the weekend. Per Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com, head coach Steve Sarkisian suspended Shaw indefinitely for lying about the cause of his injury.
When—or if—the Trojans will get Shaw back is unclear. What is clear is that the team's secondary has a major hole to patch in preparation for a Fresno State team that led the nation in passing offense a season ago.
Shaw is a proven veteran and among USC's top returning playmakers. He recorded 67 tackles a season ago to go with four interceptions—one of which came in the Trojans' 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl rout of Fresno State.
Regardless of the position, injuries will test USC more than any other team in the Pac-12. The Trojans enter 2014 with fewer than 70 scholarship players on the roster, the result of NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions in the previous three seasons.
"It's not about the overall numbers [or] sheer depth," Sarkisian said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. "We will be a little bit inexperienced [at cornerback]—perhaps a little bit more inexperienced than we'd like to be."
Indeed, the collective experience among this group declines dramatically with Shaw out of the lineup.
"Kevon Seymour is a pretty good, experienced player for us at the corner spot," Sarkisian said.
The junior Seymour started 11 games opposite Shaw a season ago. Otherwise, there is a whole lot of youth in the USC secondary.
Many of the Trojans who must now take on more prominent roles are making their collegiate debuts Saturday, including redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins.
Hawkins, listed No. 2 behind Shaw on the depth chart, like jumps into the starting rotation, the official USC Athletics account tweeted Sunday.
Sarkisian called him "one of the most improved players...from spring practice to training camp."
Whether it's Hawkins or a teammate making the start Saturday, the entire USC depth chart at cornerback now reshuffles.
"This allows for opportunities for young guys to play at corner, whether it's Adoree' Jackson, Jonathan Lockett, Lamont Simmons," Sarkisian said.
Jackson came into fall camp as the most recognized of USC's true freshmen defensive backs. A 5-star recruit from Southern California prep powerhouse Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Jackson is listed second behind Seymour at the other cornerback spot.
This reordering of the lineup puts the spotlight more on Lockett and Simmons.
At 6'2", 185 pounds, Simmons' size stands out among the USC cornerbacks. He gives defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox matchup options against bigger receivers.
Speed, however, may prove to trump size in Saturday's contest.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Dave Schramm operates a system that produced 1,088 snaps a season ago, fifth-most in the nation. The Bulldogs lost leading wide receivers Isaiah Burse and Davante Adams, but top returner Josh Harper caught for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The sheer volume of plays Fresno State runs guarantees there will be plenty of passes for the young Trojans cornerbacks to defend. Simmons explained to Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times how practicing against USC's new no-huddle offense prepares him.
"Our offense is very fast,” he said. “After the deep ball you got to come right back to the line and get ready to press another guy."
The most significant change USC faces against this year's Fresno State team is with quarterback Derek Carr gone, the Bulldogs will be going more to the ground.
"Offensively, where they could be different from  is the athleticism of the quarterbacks," Sarkisian said. "[Brian] Burrell and [Brandon] Connette, both of [whom] are athletic, big, strong guys [who] can run the ball. That's where things can change most dramatically, how they use the athleticism of the quarterback."
The spread principles Fresno State employs, including the potential for designed runs for the quarterback, likely means a lot of zone coverage from the Trojans Saturday.
It's a fitting introduction for the first-year players. Between Pac-12 South counterparts Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA alone, USC will be seeing a lot of that style of offense throughout the season—with or without Shaw.
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