Early enrollees stepping up to fill new roles

If the annual exodus of USC players to the NFL demonstrates anything, it is the importance of having talented players waiting in the wings.

Seven former Trojans were drafted last weekend, and eight more either signed with a team as a free agent or are still looking. Their departures leave holes across the field next season that will need to be filled.

Impactful · Freshman wide receiver Kyle Prater sprained his thumb earlier this spring and wore a cast at practice Saturday but still caught two passes for 21 yards. Prater has received praise from both teammates and coaches during spring practice. - Geo Tu | Daily Trojan

Fortunately for USC, the roster is packed with gifted freshmen and sophomores eager to make their mark.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley gets most of the attention, but there are plenty more underclassmen who will play key roles in the upcoming season.

Sophomore linebacker Devon Kennard impressed in spot duty last season, racking up 34 tackles and three pass deflections. The converted defensive end started the final four games of last season and has impressed USC coach Lane Kiffin this spring.

“[Kennard] looks like an NFL player right now,” Kiffin said at the start of spring practice. “[He’s] one of the few of our guys that look like we used to look when we were here.”

On Saturday, Kennard backed up his coach’s praise with eight tackles and a sack.

“I thought [the scrimmage] went really well,” Kennard said. “I was moving around, making a lot of tackles. I made a couple of mistakes but I’ll go back, watch some film and clean it up.”

Kennard is just one of the linebackers who gained valuable experience last season after Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga moved on to the NFL. Senior Michael Morgan, senior Malcolm Smith and redshirt juniors Chris Galippo and Jordan Campbell also made at least one start for USC.

“We have four or five guys who started a game at linebacker and we’re ready to go in there and prove everybody wrong about what we’re about,” Kennard said. “I definitely hope I can contribute and help bring back the Trojan linebacker [tradition].”

USC also has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.com, and the coaching staff has gotten an early look at a couple of the newcomers.  Running back Dillon Baxter and wide receiver Kyle Prater enrolled at USC this spring in order to practice with the team early and have made immediate impacts.

In his short time on campus, Baxter has thrust himself into the running back rotation and become a YouTube sensation thanks to an impressive 50-yard run making the rounds online. The reigning high school National Player of the Year is already being compared with another running back from San Diego: Reggie Bush.

Prater, a physical force at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, has impressed coaches with his playmaking ability and, on Saturday, his toughness.

“It really says a lot about the kid that we pushed him out here and he came out in a cast [even though] he obviously can’t catch with that hand at all,” Kiffin said. “That was good to see.”

Prater, who sprained his thumb earlier this spring and wore a cast at practice, had just two catches for 21 yards on Saturday but has been impossible to cover at times during the spring.

“I feel like I can bring playmaking ability,” Prater said. “I know I can go out here and make plays and help us win a national championship, [which] is why I came here.”

This spring, he has leaned on senior receivers Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry. Their advice has been simple: Stay humble and listen.

“I’m just glad I came in early because it’s given me a big step ahead of the other guys coming [with] the playbook,” Prater said. “And when they come in I can help them out as well. It’s just going to be that much better.”

This fall, five-star recruits like receiver Robert Woods, tight end Xavier Grimble and offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson will give the USC offense added firepower. Even without former standouts like Taylor Mays and Everson Griffen on the field, the Trojans will attempt to replace the star power they lost.

USC’s roster might be littered with talented underclassmen, but a trio of veteran players stood out Saturday. Senior quarterback Mitch Mustain completed 12 of 22 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns, senior running back Allen Bradford rushed for 89 yards and two scores and Ausberry hauled in a 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown.