It wasn’t just getting to watch Duce Robinson sprint down the field for the first touchdown of his career that sent the USC sideline into a frenzy. It was that the freshman receiver showed just how quickly he could improve by high-stepping through a tackle to leave defenders on the field on his 71-yard touchdown catch.
“We really ain’t get to see Duce pick up his knees,” fellow receiver Mario Williams said with a wide grin, “but he finally did this Saturday, so congrats to him.”
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) September 3, 2023
The 6-foot-6 freshman's opportunities to stride into the end zone could soon be limited. After several young Trojans made splashy plays during two blowout wins, coaches will weigh long-term development opportunities through redshirting against USC’s immediate needs on a deep team with playoff ambitions.
Ten freshmen are already halfway to the four-game maximum for retaining redshirt eligibility. A redshirt season allows athletes to practice with a team, maintaining four years of college eligibility while using appearances in up to four games and all team practices to improve.
“We’ll take it on a case-by-case basis,” head coach Lincoln Riley said of evaluating potential redshirts after Saturday's game, “but if guys can help this team now, then we’re going to lean towards playing them. We’re going to need a lot of guys.”
USC may have to rely more on its offensive line reserves after a leg injury to guard Gino Quinones put freshman Alani Noa back into the spotlight. Noa, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound former three-star prospect, got the surprise start in the opener, but didn’t work into the offensive line Saturday against Nevada until after Quinones was carted off the sideline unable to put any weight on his right leg.
Although Wyoming transfer Emmanuel Pregnon handled the majority of the snaps at left guard without Quinones, Noa had impressed his teammates and coaches with his physicality during training camp, earning him an early spot in the rotation.
“That kid man, he’s really physical,” Quinones said last week, “and once he gets down the plays, he’s going to be real dangerous.”
Noa is already well ahead of schedule. The Sacramento native bucks the common trend of 19-year-old freshmen — he doesn’t turn 20 until next month, two weeks before fellow freshman Tackett Curtis turns 20. With a dedicated work ethic that kept him on the practice field for hours honing his technique in high school, Noa’s play belies his age.
“His age is so young, but he has a real mature mindset,” said Devan Cunningham, Noa’s offensive line coach at Sacramento’s Grant High. “The desire to just always try to get better, always try to work on his craft, always trying to be a step ahead of others has really set Alani apart.”
Noa, Curtis and Zachariah Branch started during the opener as Branch starred with touchdowns on offense and special teams. But the young receiver had just one catch that went for a 22-yard touchdown against Nevada, a relatively quiet performance in USC’s deepest position group where veterans are even finding it difficult to carve out significant roles.
Redshirt sophomore Kyron Hudson, whom Riley called the MVP of preseason camp, has just two catches. After ranking second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game last year, Arizona transfer Dorian Singer has had an understated 78 yards and one touchdown on six catches.
Robinson — a five-star recruit who played in high school with Singer at Phoenix’s Pinnacle High — ranks second on the team with 115 receiving yards through two games. Fellow Arizona native, the 6-foot-4, four-star prospect Ja’Kobi Lane, has two catches for 16 yards and slot receiver Makai Lemon has four receptions for 13 yards.
Even freshman running back Quinten Joyner caught his first pass against Nevada while scoring his first collegiate touchdown, a 47-yard rush in the fourth quarter.
“I love Quinten,” Williams said. “He’s going to be very good. He’s very physical, explosive. … He got home run speed. He can get the job done.”
A freshman also sparked the most memorable play of the game as rush end Braylan Shelby forced the fumble that Stanley Ta’ufo’ou returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Shelby’s strip-sack on Nevada quarterback Brendon Lewis was USC’s first takeaway this season.
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) September 3, 2023
Shelby earned a game ball for the performance, said redshirt senior rush end Jamil Muhammad, who was carrying the prize during his postgame news conference on his way to deliver it to the freshman. Of Shelby’s four tackles during the first two games, two were for a loss.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound edge rusher was a four-star prospect expected to contribute immediately as the Trojans hoped to get a variety of pass rushers for a bigger, more physical defensive front. On the inside, freshman defensive lineman Elijah Hughes is helping clog the lane against the run, where the Trojans are allowing 3.8 yards a carry, an improvement from last year’s five-yard clip.
Hughes didn’t waste any time once he made his debut. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound prospect from Arlington, Va., drew a holding penalty on his very first collegiate snap and contributed to a tackle for loss on his second. He recorded his first official collegiate tackle for loss during the fourth quarter against Nevada, easily winning a one-on-one battle against an offensive lineman to blow up a running play.
In USC’s seventh-ranked recruiting class headlined by three five-star prospects, the three-star Hughes may have flown under the radar, but don’t count USC coaches among those surprised by what the lineman has shown.
“We felt like, honestly, that we'd stolen one a little bit,” Riley said last week, adding he felt more strongly about Hughes’ college prospects than some of his other, more-hyped peers. “From the very first second, we felt like he was a guy that was going to come in, have a chance to make an impact and obviously certainly hasn't disappointed and has probably exceeded expectations up to this point."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.