USC football's season kicks off in 43 days against San Jose State at the Los Angeles Coliseum. We know who the heavy hitters are — Caleb Williams, Mario Williams, Calen Bullock, etc. But who are the breakout candidates that are going to make Lincoln Riley's job easier? Here's a look at two from each side of the ball.
Raleek Brown, running back:
With last year's star running back, Travis Dye, out of the building, there are a lot of backfield touches up for grabs in the 2023 season. The returners are Austin Jones, who was second on the team in touches last year with 160. He totaled 972 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns. Redshirt senior Darwin Barlow will also compete for playing time in his third season with the Trojans.
But there's one other returning running back on the roster that's poised to play a big role for the Trojans. He's 5-8, 185 lbs and has lightning speed. That's Raleek Brown.
Brown's role was smaller in his freshman year than he hoped for. He had 58 touches for 407 total yards, though he did score six touchdowns. Brown was the No. 3 running back in his class and scored 72 touchdowns as a four-year starter at Mater Dei High School. He also ran a verified 4.47 40-yard dash as a HS freshman.
His 247Sports scouting report reads: “Electric top-end speed verified in track and combine testing environments. Speed fully reflected on the field. Combines game-breaking top end with impressive short-area suddenness and mobility. Quick-footed and explosive laterally.”
It's not just his straight-line speed. When Brown has the ball in his hands, he makes one cut, and he disappears, like he pressed a hyperspace button. Brown showcased flashes of that as a freshman at USC, and made a couple of game-changing plays with that speed.
Raleek Brown is just different! Love this kid and his playmaking ability. First touchdown of many for the true frosh.
— Kevin (@Daboys_22) September 3, 2022
The only concern for Brown is he's on the smaller side, so he might not project as an every-down back. Still, watch for Lincoln Riley to utilize Brown in a variety of ways, including as a pass catcher out of the slot.
Zachariah Branch, wide receiver:
This freshman wideout's best attribute is the same as Raleek Brown's: speed. But Branch might already be the fastest player in college football, and he hasn't played a snap. He hit 26 mph on a treadmill back in June.
USC true freshman WR Zachariah Branch hit 26.0 MPH🤯⚡️
— On3 (@On3sports) June 15, 2023
He was the No. 1 receiver in the class of 2023, so he's not exactly a sleeper pick to have a big year. But in a loaded USC receiver room, he has to compete for playing time with the likes of Mario Williams, Dorian Singer, and Brenden Rice.
Branch is a smaller receiver at 5-10, 175 lbs, so his priority has to be putting on some pounds, so long as it doesn't affect his speed. The freshman from Las Vegas projects to be a Tyreek Hill-type player.
The Caleb Williams-Zachariah Branch combination is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses if he gets meaningful playing time. You can't play man coverage on him, and good luck with giving him space to operate in the intermediate range.
With Lincoln Riley's play-calling creativity and Williams' playmaking ability, it's going to be really hard for opponents to keep the ball out of Branch's hands. Once he gets it, don't blink.
Domani Jackson, cornerback:
Domani Jackson is another former 5-star, also from Mater Dei. Jackson didn't see the field much in his freshman year at USC, partly due to health concerns. He appeared in seven games but didn't play meaningful snaps.
Jackson was the No. 2 cornerback in his class and the top overall prospect in California. USC's defense was a major weakness last year, and Riley has opted to reload through the transfer portal again. However, people are definitely overlooking Jackson as the Trojans approach the start of their season.
Mekhi Blackmon was the Trojans' top corner last year, but his future lies with the Minnesota Vikings. That means there's a lot of snaps up for grabs, especially in Alex Grinch's defense. Grinch's scheme relies heavily on nickel and dime formations, so there's almost always more than two corners on the field.
At 6-1, 190 lbs, Jackson has desirable length and plays with more physicality than a lot of college receivers. He's a strong tackler and a tough matchup in press man coverage.
However, his speed is what made him such a coveted prospect, and that's what will make him an elite college player with future first-round upside. Obviously, speed is a theme here, but speed dominates in college football.
Raesjon Davis, linebacker:
One more Mater Dei product here. Raesjon Davis hasn't played much over his first two seasons with USC football, but he has the tools to help shore up the Trojans' weaknesses in the front seven.
Davis is an excellent open field tackler and can bolster USC's run defense. In limited playing time, Davis showed glimpses of that ability; he had three solo tackles in USC's Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane.
At 6-1, 225 lbs, Davis is highly versatile and strong in coverage. Using Davis as an outside linebacker would allow Grinch to keep an extra player in the box without giving up too much in the intermediate passing game.
Davis was the No. 9 linebacker in his class, so it's surprising he's been used so sparingly, especially for such a weak USC defense that had nothing to lose by rotating players.
USC will likely use some combination of Eric Gentry, Shane Lee, Mason Cobb, Tackett Curtis and Davis at linebacker. They also have a couple of guys who can line up on the edge or at linebacker in Korey Foreman and Braylan Shelby. If Davis gets the opportunity, he has the upside to contribute in a big way.
Raleek Brown, Zachariah Branch, Domani Jackson and Raesjon Davis were all highly recruited high school players. USC was an elite football team last year, and they've had all this talent sitting on the bench. These are four sleeping giants for USC football, but there's a few other guys who weren't major pieces last year that all have a lot of potential.
Freshman tight end Duce Robinson just has too much physical upside and athletic ability to not be a great college football player. He might not explode this year, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if he does.
Zachariah Branch's older brother, Zion Branch, is a sophomore safety at USC. He missed most of last year with injuries, but he was the No. 6 safety in his class. If he's healthy, he can slot in very nicely with Calen Bullock to create a rock-solid back end of the defense.
Freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis probably won't get too much playing time as a freshman in this system, but he hits like a truck and his high school tape is a joy to watch. Watch for him to have a breakout season of his own in the next few years.
As for Korey Foreman, everyone is waiting on the former No. 2 overall prospect to live up to his talent, but it just hasn't happened yet. Sadly, it's starting to look like it's never going to. It's now or never for Foreman, who's the most talented player on USC's roster outside of Caleb Williams.