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Keys to the USC football kingdom are being handed to freshmen

At least five first-year players are expected to have prominent roles in the season opener Thursday at Hawaii, with two, receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey, slated to start. Get used to it, Coach Lane Kiffin says.

August 27, 2010|By Gary Klein

Robert Woods came to USC confident that he would play and contribute right away.

Turns out, the freshman could be the first Trojan to touch the ball this season when USC plays its opener Thursday at Hawaii.

Woods is a starting kick returner and also will start at receiver. And he's one of several players Coach Lane Kiffin and his staff are counting on to play large roles despite their inexperience.

Freshman cornerback Nickell Robey will start against Hawaii, and freshman tailback Dillon Baxter might have, had he not violated team rules, drawing a one-game suspension.

Redshirt freshman cornerback Torin Harris and freshman receivers Markeith Ambles and Kyle Prater are others expected to make their debuts in Honolulu.

Kiffin has been selling prospects on immediate playing time since the early 2000s, when he coached under Pete Carroll and served as the Trojans' national point man for recruiting.

But after going through training camp with fewer than 70 scholarship players, Kiffin said, "There will be more inexperienced players in significant roles earlier than before."

Not, he notes, without a cost.

"They're going to make mistakes in these first couple games — all of them always do," Kiffin said. "We're going to get it out of them right now so they can help us win down the stretch as opposed to waiting until someone gets hurt in Week 4 or Week 5, and you're in the middle of conference play and throwing a guy out there for the first time in a critical game."

Woods, like the other newcomers, is eager for the opportunity.

The former Gardena Serra High star would be the first true freshman receiver to start an opener for the Trojans, according to USC's sports information department. Woods wants the Trojans to win the coin toss at Hawaii and then elect to receive the opening kickoff.

He claims he won't be nervous.

"You just have to be patient with it," said the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Woods, who returned five kickoffs for touchdowns as a high school junior. "You can't rush it. You just have to look the ball in, and then everybody else is going to do their job so you just have to do yours."

Robey, from Frostproof, Fla., earned a starting role by making plays throughout training camp. The 5-8, 165-pound Robey would be the first true freshman cornerback to start an opener, USC officials said, and will also play on special teams.

Against Hawaii's pass-happy run-and-shoot offense, USC probably will deploy five defensive backs. Robey would play as a nickel back, with the 6-1, 185-pound Harris, who intercepted several passes during camp, playing opposite senior cornerback Shareece Wright.

"They're inexperienced but you get a certain amount of time to train them," USC's secondary coach Willie Mack Garza said of Robey and Harris. "After that they're just like older players who haven't played much: They have to perform."

Baxter will remain in Los Angeles and wait for the Trojans to return before his anticipated debut against Virginia on Sept. 11 at the Coliseum.

The former San Diego Mission Bay High star could play a larger role for the Trojans than any newcomer this season because of his multipurpose skills as a running back, receiver and kick returner.

"There is a 'Dillon Factor' like we used to refer to it here before with Reggie [Bush]," Kiffin said. "There's things he does that the other guys don't exactly do. He's very unique."

So is the 6-5, 210-pound Prater, an Illinois native who was slowed through spring practice and training- camp workouts because of injuries. The speedy Ambles, a 6-2, 215-pound receiver from Georgia, also will push for playing time.

Then there's kicker Joe Houston.

By newcomer standards, the fifth-year senior is a sage veteran, having converted one extra-point last season.

The 5-foot-7 former walk-on was awarded a scholarship this week after winning the starting job.

"The pressure is always going to be there and I knew that early," Houston said. "But I feel good right now, I'm trained for this, and a lot of hard work has paid off."

Kiffin knows the real work is just beginning, especially with NCAA sanctions that mandate a reduction in scholarships over the next three years.

"The hope is that this class is as good as it appears to be right now and that it continues to work hard and stays on the right track," Kiffin said. "This is good for us to have these guys playing right away because we're going to need to do it even more."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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