As the Trojans continue to dig their way out of massive NCAA sanctions, the loss of initial first-year player scholarships has left the program constantly searching for ways to maximize the value of its roster.
Now with 66 healthy scholarship players (and counting), 19 of which are true freshmen and four more that were former walk-on players awarded scholarships, USC is still behind the eight ball against almost every Division-1 Football program.
"We have to prepare ourselves for just about everything, and that's what training camps for," coach Steve Sarkisian cautions. "When you get this many practices, you can only rep your plays so many times."
One of coach Sarkisian's biggest goals during training camp is to develop contingency plans in case of major injuries. Basically the staff want to address all of those what-if scenarios over the next few weeks to make sure the entire roster can be versatile across the board once the season gets going.
Places like the offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback and outside linebacker could all become red flag positions if injuries occur. Returning just two starters on the line, one productive wide receiver from all of last season and both starting outside linebackers are in the NFL. The Trojans returned 16 starters, but they did lose critical depth as well.
"You have to start to mix and match and put guys in uncomfortable situations, so that if they occur in the game they won't feel like ‘I've never done this before,"' Sark said
Bring in young guns like Toa Lobendahn, Jordan Simmons and Khaliel Rodgers on the offensive line and USC is rolling the dice with talented, yet inexperienced players in the trenches. To be fair, Lobendahn is playing well enough to earn a starting job this season while Rodgers could match him as the other starting guard.
Many of the contingency plans involve the versatile players on this roster --Scott Felix, J.R. Tavai, Gerald Bowman, Quinton Powell, Su'a Cravens --but on any given play, football can throw you a curve ball at every position.
The Trojans understand that injuries occur. Recent losses of Kenny Bigelow, Aundrey Walker (healthy but not yet fully participating) and Jabari Ruffin can randomly happen over the course of the season. That means players will be challenged to rise up to the occasion, and that could significantly help this roster down the road.
Don't forget that players lower on the depth chart reap the benefits of increase playing time, especially when the spotlight shines brightest during the regular season.
Through an increased workload in pressure-packed situations, which can take place in a competitive environment, "They (younger players) can feel like ‘I've done this before, I can lean on practice' and then they can go out and perform,"' said Sarkisian, recognizing the importance of added repetitions for players up and down the depth chart.
A lack of depth across the board leaves USC with only 35 upperclassmen on scholarship. While the Trojans currently have depth at wide receiver, for example, injury-related concerns for Steven Mitchell and George Farmer present some major questions.
USC has responded by awarding Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith added reps, recognizing that these prospects can also continue to gain valuable reps on defense.
Digging even deeper on the roster, the Trojans' shuffling of the deck in the secondary will pay off both now and in the future. Sophomore safety Su'a Cravens has been asked to play a role similar to the one Shaq Thompson exhibited at Washington, playing close to the line of scrimmage as a nickel back and rotating safety.
Freshman John Plattenburg (S) and Jonathan Lockett (CB) have been asked to increase their work load in practice, learning along the way from veterans Gerald Bowman and Josh Shaw in the secondary. And that's just scratching the surface.
During a team "Blitz Period," working from inside the 10-yard-line moving outwards, Max Browne led an entire series with the first-team offense.
In a calculated effort to avoid possible injury, giving his young pocket passer an idea of how to survive during the moment, the coaching staff made it known that contingency plans are always on everyone's mind. "What we are trying to do is gather as much information as possible," Sarkisian said about the training camp process.
The examples go on and on across the board, and USC will continue to keep plugging away just in case the Trojans are forced to repeat last year's performance --when they only used 41 scholarship players in a win against Oregon State.
Playing with lower numbers is nothing won't get any sympathy from anyone on the schedule, which means Sarkisian and company must be ready for when those what ifs turn into lets roll moments. "We try to put ourselves in those positions now. They are not always the prettiest of scenarios, but we will get better."