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Fall Camp Is Summer School for USC Freshmen


LOS ANGELES — Freshmen are off limits to media during USC fall training camp — the youngsters have enough on their plates as is.

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The weeks leading up to the Trojans’ 2015 season opener put first-year players through a crash course in College Football 101.

“We do the best we can to put a lot on the young kids,” said linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. “But at the same time, you have to coach young kids differently than older kids.”

USC’s highly regarded class of newcomers will be graded on a steeper learning curve than some of their freshman counterparts around college football. That’s because the Trojans will rely on first-year contributors up and down the lineup.

Related: USC 2015 Fall Camp Preview and Key Position Battles to Watch

The influx of instant-impact newbies is a result of both necessity — three years of NCAA sanctions rendered USC’s roster thin, and the program’s first full signing class since 2012 adds needed depth – and, quite simply, because the Trojans can.

The 2015 signing class ranked No. 1 or No. 2, depending on the outlet. It features a variety of 4-and-5-star prospects ready to contribute right away. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also have lessons to learn in the meantime.

“When you’re a freshman and a newcomer, it’s all about consistency that’s needed to be a great player,” said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. “It’s a very simple concept: You’ve got to bring it every day. Everybody says that every day, in your job and my job. But you have to do it, and it takes mental maturity.”

For coaches, getting the freshmen up to speed both with strategic concepts and in cultivating that mental maturity is a balancing act.

“The challenge when you get really talented players [is] not to over-coach them,” Sirmon said. “You give them the big-picture structure of what we want to do, then you’ve got to let some of that talent shine through.”

A portion of the teaching duties fall with the team’s veterans, a tradition that carries on from season-to-season as seniors graduate and newcomers arrive. Cornerback/wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson knows the freshman process well, having experienced it himself just last year.

“That’s why I want to go out there and help them as much possible,” he said. “When I was coming in, we had Josh Shaw, Kevon Seymour, Gerald Bowman, Su’a Cravens, all those guys wanted to help me out. Now, it’s just me returning the favor.”

For a fourth-year player like linebacker Scott Felix who has been through scores of these preseason workouts, he knows what to look for from first-timers — positive or negative. And according to him, it’s so far, so good for the new Trojans.

 “They’re learning fast,” Felix said. “They’re getting competitive with us. Overall, most of the freshmen here are competing and that’s what we want to see from them.”

The linebacker corps is especially rife with freshman talent, which Felix said he, “like[s] a lot.” And with good reason.

USC signed a pair of 5-star prospects in Porter Gustin and Osa Masina, as well as 4-star recruits John Houston and Cam Smith. They may be freshmen in terms of their age and experience, but physically is another story in a few instances.

Gustin in particular has a build one would not expect of a first-year player. The only “person” with a more statuesque physique on USC’s campus is Tommy Trojan.

“He was a highly sought-after kid for a reason,” Sirmon said.

Smith is the furthest along of the fab four, having joined the Trojans as an early enrollee in the spring. Smith went through spring workouts and player-led workouts in the early summer, in that time earning kudos from such teammates as Cravens.

“He's playing like a veteran,” Cravens said of Smith at July’s Pac-12 media days.

Smith’s quick acclimation to the duties of a Trojan middle linebacker have earned him first-team repetitions. He anticipates and pursues the run well and reads the quarterback on pass plays effectively enough to have done something no one defender in the Pac-12 can claim. Per Cravens, Smith intercepted Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Cody Kessler twice.

The youngster from Granite Bay, Calif., has been good enough for head coach Steve Sarkisian to resurrect an old tradition. Sarkisian gave Smith the No. 35, a number donned by great Trojan linebackers like Scott Ross, Rex Moore and Riki Ellison.

The head start was an obvious boon for Smith.

“You go through 15 sessions of anything, add on the meetings, and then the offseason program, you’re going to be ahead of the game that way,” Wilcox said. “That doesn’t mean the guys who got here in summer and the start of camp can’t pick it up quickly.

“But yeah,” he added. “If you’re going to learn French, and you took 15 classes, you’re going to be ahead of the people who joined you on the 16th, right? Same idea.”

No word if any of USC’s freshman class is taking French once classes start in September. That’s the next phase in their adjustment to college: balancing obligations as a student-athlete.

By then, however, the football stuff will be old hat.

“You’re only a freshman until you play,” Kessler said.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45. - See more at:

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45. - See more at: