LOS ANGELES -- During his first season as coach of the USC Trojans, Lane Kiffin didn't mince words when discussing how talent-strapped his roster appeared. During this fall camp, it became apparent how much the 2011 Trojans would rely on players who signed in Kiffin's first two recruiting classes.
USC's 19-17 victory over Minnesota on Saturday afternoon might not have rocked the college football world, but there were more than a few individual wins for several Trojans making their first college starts.
True freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee, redshirt freshman linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, true freshman linebacker Tre Madden and redshirt freshman tailback D.J. Morgan all proved during fall camp that they had earned a shot at significant playing time. Just how significant wouldn't be known until Saturday, when all five found themselves in the starting lineup.
Taking the field in front of the Coliseum crowd would rattle most young players. But these players were going to have to be major contributors, so there was no time to feel the nerves.
"Believe it or not, there weren't any nerves," said Lee, who caught his first pass as a Trojan early in the first quarter and finished with five receptions for 32 yards. "I thought I'd have some, but I guess I just felt comfortable. There were no jitters at all."
Pullard had only a few moments to gather his thoughts after being informed that he'd be the starter at weakside linebacker. After pulling his headphones over his ears and locking in his concentration, he said there was nothing left to do but enjoy it.
"It was great today, knowing the seniors had my back," said Pullard, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles. "If I made a mistake, I was going to make it full-speed. I just wanted to go out there and play hard."
Morgan's presence as the starting tailback was met with the most attention, considering the position's prestige. He was told Friday afternoon, along with fellow tailback Curtis McNeal, that both players would rotate early in hopes of settling into a rhythm. And while Morgan responded with a team-best 18 carries for 70 yards, he made sure his first moment on the field wouldn't be in the offensive huddle.
"I had to get on kickoff coverage so I could get that first play out of the way," Morgan said. "They put me on there and I got to get my first little jitters out. By the time we got on offense, I was ready to play."
Morgan said from that point on it was about relaxing and having fun.
Madden didn't see any time on the defensive side of the ball, but he did earn spots on multiple special teams units, both coverage and return. Special teams has become a focus for the Trojans with coach John Baxter, and the 11 positions on each unit have become a point of pride. Madden said his production during the final two fall scrimmages sealed his starting spot. And with Minnesota electing to receive after winning the coin toss, he had his sights set on making an early impact.
"I just wanted to make the first tackle of the season," said Madden, who indeed registered a tackle on the opening kickoff, and added another later. "I'm proud of myself. It was all excitement -- no nerves. I'm happy to be out here and to be a Trojan."
For Baily, any nervousness had manifested itself as excitement. Never afraid to bounce around on the practice field, he didn't hesitate to show his emotions on the Coliseum turf.
"It was amazing," Bailey said of sprinting out of the tunnel knowing he'd be taking the field for the first time as a Trojan. "I'm blessed to have the opportunity I had today. I wanted to go out there and take full advantage of it."
After watching from the bench last season, as the USC defense allowed three game-winning drives in the final minutes, both Bailey and Pullard were pleased to be involved in the Trojans' last stand Saturday, as cornerback Torin Harris came up with an interception to seal the victory. These young players will need to step up quickly, as they continue to shoulder much of the load at outside linebacker.
"We said this was going to prove if we got better," Bailey said of the defensive huddle before the final Minnesota drive. "Last year we had problems finishing two-minute drills. We wanted to finish off games this year and today we came out and did it."
"We talked to each other," Pullard said. "We treat each other on defense as brothers. We told the defensive linemen, 'You give us a great pass rush and we're going to make plays back here.' "
Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.