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USC practice takeaways: Jordan Addison’s debut, LB reinforcements, Raleek Brown’s role

LOS ANGELES – All the talk about coaching staff hires, roster movement — and for good kicks, realignment — was slowly pushed to the background at USC on Friday.

The Trojans opened camp at 7 a.m., and after an offseason that featured a lot of noise and hype, football is finally the main focus. USC also held its own media day with a bevy of coaches and players speaking Thursday, which means there’s plenty to digest.

So here are 14 thoughts as USC unofficially opens the doors on the 2022 season.

1. Whether it was Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams, Travis Dye or another transfer, all eyes were on the newcomers at USC during the spring. That’s no different during preseason camp, and there’s no more high-profile addition than reigning Biletnikoff Award winner and Pitt transfer Jordan Addison, who caught 100 passes for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Panthers in 2021.

Addison’s decision to transfer was met with a ton of blowback (particularly from Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi), some tampering allegations and unfounded rumors of grandiose NIL offers. Nearly two and a half months after his decision to transfer to USC, Addison met with the local media for the first time and addressed the matter.

“It was frustrating,” Addison said of the rumors, “but I wasn’t really too concerned with it because the truth always comes to the light. I knew what my focus was and my intent, so all of that was just outside noise.”

At one point, Addison even described the rumors as “BS.” He also said he didn’t speak to Narduzzi in the immediate aftermath of his transfer.

“Whatever they had to say, they can say it,” Addison said. “I appreciate them for giving me the opportunity to play at that prestigious institution, but it’s all good now.”

2. When asked what sparked the decision to transfer, Addison said: “My story was already written, and I’m just sticking to the script. It’s really just a feeling I had, and it landed me here.”

That “here” is USC, where Addison lifts the Trojans’ offensive ceiling and gives them a true No. 1 wideout.

There were no specifics offered about where Addison will line up on the field. He played a lot out of the slot at Pitt and could probably line up inside or outside for USC. Riley will surely come up with ways to get Addison involved in the offense. At Friday’s practice, Addison was also getting some work as a punt returner, so that could be another avenue for touches.

“Just the creativity,” Addison said when asked why he thought USC’s offense was a fit for him. “I feel like I’m already a creative wide receiver so just being in this offense is going to help me out a lot more,  especially with all the weapons we have.”

Addison’s arrival should take some pressure off of fellow receiver Mario Williams, who can operate as the passing game’s No. 2 target now, and the other wideouts who haven’t been the focal point of an offense before.

3. Addison, notably, was wearing the No. 3 USC jersey while conducting interviews Thursday and going through practice Friday. It’s a number that no Trojan has worn in 20 years — since Carson Palmer donned it and won the Heisman Trophy in 2002.

Addison said he’s worn No. 3 since high school and has stuck with it since he’s had success with that number. Palmer gave Addison his blessing to wear it this fall.

“That was a great conversation,” Addison said. “I don’t want to get into too much detail with it, but I’m just going to make sure he knows he put the number on the right person.”

It’s the first time USC has “unretired” a Heisman Trophy winner’s number since Darnell Bing wore No. 20 as a true freshman in 2003. That jersey number belonged to legendary USC tailback and former athletic director Mike Garrett.

As noted earlier, Addison is the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, so he’s proven more on the field at this point in his career than Bing, who was a high-profile recruit, had at that time.

4. Another intriguing addition to watch during training camp will be linebacker Eric Gentry, who was a Freshman All-American at Arizona State last fall and transferred to USC this spring.

Gentry lined up at inside linebacker for the Sun Devils last season and recorded 45 tackles, five for loss, and a sack. Just from observing him at Friday’s practice, he certainly has one of the most unique physical builds you’ll see from an inside linebacker.

Gentry is listed at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds and almost looks more like a receiver when you see him on the field. There is still some weight to add to that frame, but the athleticism and talent is tantalizing.

Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom spoke to the media Thursday. His time with his new linebacker has been limited since Gentry didn’t transfer until after USC had already concluded spring practice.

Odom said the staff will have to figure out where Genry might play (either inside or on the edge) and how he’ll factor into the rotation.

“I haven’t seen very many guys who have been able to play true inside linebacker with that build, but watching him move around in space, I feel like he’s got a shot,” Odom said. “And that adds a whole different element just in the pass game, also making tackles. You’ve got more surface area on guys when you’ve got a little more length.

“But it’s so early in the process with him here. I would imagine he didn’t come here to not make an impact and we didn’t ask him to come here to not make an impact. We’re going to exhaust every option to be able to figure out a way so he can make an impact.”

5. USC’s linebacker play has been maligned for the past three or four seasons. It’s one of a few areas that has noticeably dropped off since the Trojans’ most recent glory days in the 2000s under Pete Carroll.

Gentry certainly brings more talent to the group, but he’ll have to beat out Ralen Goforth, who has started at linebacker for the past two seasons.

USC also added Utah transfer Carson Tabaracci in May. And Shane Lee, an Alabama transfer who joined the program in January, is a likely starter who has turned into one of the team’s leaders this offseason.

Without saying it publicly, USC’s actions have clearly illustrated that the coaching staff thought it needed to upgrade its personnel at linebacker. Gentry is just the latest example of that.

But the dynamic between the newcomers and the returners is something Odom, who hosted his position group for dinner at his house this summer, is definitely monitoring.

“It’s on your radar, obviously,” Odom said. “But I think if we’re building their trust the right way and we’re transparent in what we’re doing and you’re fair and you’ve got a bunch of clarity about what you’re doing and how you go about your business, a lot of that stuff should take care of itself.”

6. While we’re on the linebackers, Riley said Thursday he anticipates that pretty much every player will be healthy and ready to go for camp except for Tabaracci. This excludes freshman safety Zion Branch, who USC already announced suffered a knee injury earlier this summer and will miss a significant portion of time.

Branch was at practice Friday with a brace on his left knee.

7. Branch was one of a few blue-chip defensive back signees in USC’s 2022 recruiting class. The highest-rated player of that group was five-star corner Domani Jackson, who we didn’t get to see much in the spring as he was recovering from a knee injury sustained during his senior season.

Jackson was a full participant in Friday’s practice, so his progress will be tracked throughout camp and the season.

“Everybody knows about his physical traits,” defensive backs coach Donte Williams said. “Coming off an injury, you kind of lose that a little bit. … Is he where he was when he got hurt? Probably not. He’s probably at like 80-85 percent, but his 80-85 percent when it comes to physical traits is still outstanding.

“The biggest thing is making sure he grows mentally and learning how to deal with a little bit of adversity. In high school, when you’re that talented, a lot of guys don’t even throw your way a whole game. Now he’s a true freshman and no matter what when he steps on the field, everybody’s going to try to test him. Making sure he’s ready for that challenge and it’s something that he wants. Domani’s a really competitive person so I’m looking forward to it.”

8. Williams brought up an interesting point later in that conversation. He basically said this will be the first time he’ll truly get to work with Jackson and a lot of USC’s other corners.

Take Josh Jackson for example. The third-year sophomore switched to corner at the tail end of the 2020 season, which was shortened due to COVID-19. He and some other second-year corners such as Ceyair Wright and Prophet Brown were only coached by Williams for two games last season before Williams was promoted to interim head coach.

And then there are some players who arrived this spring, like Jackson and Mekhi Blackmon, who were injured during spring and limited. And there are also new arrivals like Fabian Ross and Washington transfer Jacobe Covington, who have never worked with Williams before.

USC had subpar corner play last season, so we’ll see if things improve with Williams coaching the group for a whole season without restrictions.

9. Guard Max Gibbs worked mostly with the second-team offense during the spring but is no longer on the roster and is dealing with a “personal matter,” according to Riley. So which of the Trojans’ reserve linemen does that open the door for?

“I think one guy that had a really good spring, in my opinion, kind of surprised me with his level of play was Gino Quinones,” offensive line coach Josh Henson said. “I thought he did a very nice job. I think it opens the doors for guys like Andrew Milek, not only at the center position but the backup guard position. Jason Rodriguez, those interior guys who have been sitting with the second group. Andres Dewerk, and obviously there’s Cooper (Lovelace). Those are the guys we’ll be looking to to start to build depth and find a quality replacement should we face adversity there.”

Riley also praised Quinones, who has been in the programs since 2019 but has played sparingly, after practice Friday when asked about the backup offensive line. Reserve tackle Mason Murphy was the first name he mentioned.

10. Lovelace, a junior college transfer, was a noteworthy addition in the spring. He also had offers from Florida and Iowa State. Lovelace is listed at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds. Henson said he’s more of an interior lineman when you look at the measurables but that Lovelace “was one of those interesting guys who’s probably right at that point he could probably play any position.”

Henson also said they’ll work Lovelace at center as well and will see how he fits once they hit the field.

11. If you haven’t watched Raleek Brown’s high school highlights yet, you should. USC hasn’t quite had a player with a skill set like Brown, who will play some running back and some slot, in a while. He adds some variety to this offense.

Running backs coach Kiel McDonald and interim inside receivers coach Luke Huard were both coy when asked Thursday about how Brown will split time during training camp. But it’s clear Brown is held in high regard.

“He’s got real juice,” McDonald said. “He can run. He’s got a lot of natural ability. He can make you miss. He can hit the home run. He has ball skills. He’s a natural ball catcher. He makes things easy. Again, you’re going to see him in a number of different places on the field. He’s more like a swiss army knife. … There are a lot of things he brings to the program and we want to make sure we get to showcase his talent.”

12. McDonald coached several standout running backs over the past several years at Utah, such as Zack Moss, who was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2019, Tavion Thomas, a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2021, and the late Ty Jordan, the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2020.

“I had a freshman in 2020,” McDonald said. “Kind of sawed off, very explosive, could catch and he took the Pac-12 by storm. So there’s a lot of comparisons there. Obviously, they’re their own type of players, but he (Raleek) does remind me of Ty.”

13. Australian punter signee Atticus Bertrams was the presumed starter at punter, but he will not be joining the program this fall. And that leaves some questions about the position, which wasn’t necessarily a bright spot during the spring.

It seems as though walk-on Will Rose is in line to start now. Riley was asked Friday if the punting situation is a concern at the moment.

“I wouldn’t say concern,” Riley said. “Will Rose did a really nice job in the spring, completely comfortable with him. We’d love to add another body just for depth, competition and all of that, and I think we will. This day in college football, you’ve always got to have backup plans and you’ve got to always have the next guy in mind. It wasn’t something that caught us off guard. We were prepared and we’ll act accordingly.”

14. We mentioned last week that you should double-down on whatever stock you may own in sophomore safety Calen Bullock after Caleb Williams singled him out as someone he’s been impressed with this summer.

A reporter asked Addison a similar question Thursday, and he echoed that praise of Bullock.

“Calen Bullock,” he said. “Just the way he can cover ground and cover the whole back end of the field. He really surprised me when I came out here. He’s a great athlete.”

(Photo of Jordan Addison: Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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