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First impressions of freshmen and newcomers

Ten true freshmen and three transfers hit Howard Jones Field for their first spring ball practice on Tuesday and all had varying degrees of impact. It was a strong showing overall for the group, led by some impressive skill position players. Without pads on and just one practice into their USC careers, it’s virtually impossible to guarantee anything long term. But there were definitely some first impressions available.

Quarterback Jaxson Dart

Dart was the second quarterback up on Tuesday, following starter Kedon Slovis. His most impressive showing came during drills when quarterbacks were throwing to receivers without defenders present. Dart rolled to his right and fired a 3/4-arm laser downfield to a receiver in stride. It was a good look at the athleticism and ability with his arm that Dart brings to the position. His first reps in 7-on-7 work, it looked like he was still adjusting to the speed difference at this level. He was a little late on a throw to a crossing receiver and safety Max Williams nearly undercut it for an interception. On the next throw, Dart was a little behind tight end Josh Falo and safety Isaiah Pola-Mao was able to just get his fingers on it to force an incompletion. Dart also fumbled a handoff exchange with running back Vavae Malepeai.

But he was able to showcase his ability to maneuver in and out of the pocket and fired a strike to wide receiver K.D. Nixon on the sideline for a nice gain. He also gave tight end Ethan Rae an opportunity to go up and get the ball when he bought time, scrambled up to the line of scrimmage and floated a catchable ball up to Rae down by the goal line.

This is not an easy defense to play against in easing into a college career as a quarterback, and it’ll be interesting to see how Dart does on Saturday and in the coming weeks. There was definitely enough shown on Tuesday to think he’s going to be a good one.

Quarterback Miller Moss

Moss was similar to Dart in that it looked like the speed of the game was a little much in that very first practice, but ultimately there’s a lot to like about his game. He also found K.D. Nixon for a completion and then tried to hit Nixon again with a deep ball that was knocked away by Isaac Taylor-Stuart. Moss had a bit of a rough go at the end during the team period, as he was playing behind the third-string offensive line. He tried to hit Michael Jackson III on an in-breaking route but it looked like Jackson stopped and Dart kept leading him, so the ball nearly went straight to cornerback Joshua Jackson Jr. for an incompletion. Dart tried to find Jackson deep down the sideline after that, but Jackson got his hand up at the last instant to cause the incompletion. Neither deep ball Moss tried was completed, but both looked like nice throws with touch and accuracy.

It will be interesting to see if Moss continues to rotate behind Dart in the coming practices, or how the reps are split between the two freshmen.

Running back Brandon Campbell

Campbell came into camp listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds and he looks all of that. This is a good-sized back and what jumped out on Tuesday was the speed he brings at that size. At the end of the 7-on-7 portion, quarterback Mo Hasan found Campbell out near the sideline after checking down to him and Campbell looked pinned in with a linebacker coming over in pursuit. But Campbell quickly turned upfield and looked like he escaped up the sideline without being touched. It was a nice burst of speed from him.

Campbell also rotated in with the kick and punt returners, so he could eventually be an option at either of those.

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III

There were receptions to be had on Tuesday with some receivers out and others not participating in the entire practice, but Jackson did well, starting with a big gain on a throw from Kedon Slovis during 7-on-7. The comparison he said the USC coaches used for him is Amon-Ra St. Brown, and at 6-foot, 200 pounds, he’s definitely in the ballpark. But it’s not just physically. Jackson is a really hard worker and it won’t be surprising to see him work his way into the rotation this year or at least set himself up to contribute heavily in 2022. He’s a great route runner and, like St. Brown, physically built to where it’s difficult to defenses to push him around and get him away from his spot easily.

Tight end Lake McRee

The tight end position was as deep as it’s looked in a while, as Erik Krommenhoek, Josh Falo and Ethan Rae all participated, and several walk-ons were in there as well. Lake McRee looked the part in jumping in and making an impact on Tuesday. His most notable play came on a route where he was coming back to the quarterback and the ball was zipped outside of his body. McRee was able to showcase his catching ability by solidly grabbing the pass with his arms outstretched to the side. It’ll be much easier to get an idea as to McRee’s style of play once the pads go on and his speed and strength is on display in a game-like setting.

Defensive lineman Jay Toia

When Kobe Pepe arrived last spring, he looked really big for a true freshman at 6-foot-1, 295 pounds. Toia just about dwarfs him now, as Toia is listed at 6-foot-3, 325 pounds.

He’ll need to continue progressing physically, and he’ll need to improve his pass rush moves in order to make a real impact. The hope is that he isn’t needed this season, because there are plenty of more experienced bodies in the middle of that defensive line. The size, strength and effort were there, but going up against guys like Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich isn’t an easy task for a true freshman who didn’t get to play a senior season. Toia definitely seems like a guy right now who will look better once the pads come on and he can show his block-eating and run-stopping ability.

Safeties Anthony Beavers Jr., Xamarion Gordon and Calen Bullock

There wasn’t a lot to separate these three on Tuesday. Gordon worked with the second-team defense at safety, alongside Xavion Alford and Briton Allen. It will obviously be interested to see what the rotation looks like as the spring progresses. One thing that stood out is Gordon’s size. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and he is physically impressive.

It would not be surprising to see these three carve out special teams spots this season, and potentially push to get in on defense. It’s a good looking group of freshmen safeties. Nobody did anything to really stand out on Tuesday, but it was an overall good day for the Nos. 2 and 3 secondaries as not many passes were completed downfield.

Linebacker Julien Simon

Simon will have his work cut out for him to get into the defensive rotation after two walk-ons manned the inside linebacker spots on Tuesday. No concerns about Simon at this point, and he definitely looks the part out there.

Running back Keaontay Ingram

Ingram was one of the standouts for me on Tuesday, despite the practice not being and getting a real look at him in the running game. He seems to do everything well as a running back, showing good balance in maneuvering through the secondary and really impressing in the passing game. He put a few spin moves on defenders coming in for tackles that — even though it was touch and the defenders weren’t looking to deliver hits — might have still resulted in missed tackles and extra yards. There’s still a long ways to go in the spring and the other running backs will have a say, but based on just the first impression, it’ll be surprising if Ingram doesn’t carve out a role this season.

Wide receiver K.D. Nixon

Nixon is going to play and play a lot this season. That much is clear after one practice. He’s capable out wide and in the slot and is fairly dynamic with the ball in his hands after the catch. It’ll be about he and Kedon Slovis developing a connection over the rest of the spring and into the fall, but he should provide another weapon in a passing game that already features Drake London and Bru McCoy. He’s listed at 5-foot-8, but the 190 pounds on that frame makes him a very solidly-built receiver. It’ll be interesting to see him with pads on and how difficult he might be to bring down with his combination of strength and speed.

Safety Xavion Alford

Alford went with the second-team defense at safety and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get some time with the first-team next to Isaiah Pola-Mao at some point this spring. As mentioned above, the secondaries largely had good performances on Tuesday and Alford looks like he fits right into this defense.

Cornerback Joshua Jackson Jr.

He’s not a true newcomer, but this was his first practice at cornerback, so that qualifies him for the list. Jackson probably would have been just fine at wide receiver and it’s way, way too early to draw any conclusions about him as a cornerback. But boy, there were some glimpses on Tuesday that might make this a phenomenal move in the long run both for Jackson and USC. He seemed to be in the right place at the right time a bunch and got into the backfield for a sack as well. There was one play where he stayed with a receiver deep down the field and was able to knock the ball away by going up at just the right time and getting his hands up, without looking back at the quarterback and without interfering with the receiver. There’s still a long ways to go, but this is definitely one worth keeping an eye on based on those very early returns.

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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