USC kicker Andre Heidari celebrates the Trojans' 31-17 victory over… (Jonathan Daniel / Getty…)
Nine years ago, it was considered out of the ordinary. Now it's common practice.
When USC traveled to Colorado in 2002, freshman Winston Justice started for the first time at offensive tackle. A player only a few months removed from high school took on an assignment thought to require much more seasoning.
On Friday, USC revisits Folsom Field — this time for a Pacific 12 Conference game — with first-year freshmen starting at offensive guard, receiver and kicker. Another is prepared to make his starting debut at linebacker.
The Trojans also have first-year freshmen rotating in at middle linebacker, tailback and on special teams.
And two redshirt freshman linebackers lead the team in tackles.
"It's going to be great for our future," Coach Lane Kiffin said.
Will it be good for this month?
The Trojans will find out starting Friday against a struggling Colorado team, then down the stretch against Washington, No. 6 Oregon and UCLA..
USC is coming off an emotional 56-48 triple-overtime loss against Stanford. The Trojans, 22-point favorites, will be without several starters for all or part of the game because of injuries and a suspension.
After a shortened week of preparation, USC's youthful lineup will try to regain a winning edge in an environment that could be difficult because of chilly conditions.
"An abnormal game," Kiffin said. "Kind of the unknown."
USC has several older players who experienced the crucible of starting as freshmen, quarterback Matt Barkley, receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey among them.
"You get more comfortable," Woods said of the benefits he has enjoyed as a sophomore. "The game slows down."
USC's current youth movement was born of necessity, at least according to Kiffin, who rarely misses an opportunity to allude to the former coaching staff's subpar recruiting.
"This is not the way you want to do it because they're going to make mistakes," Kiffin said of starting young players. "If you have too many of them out there, they make too many mistakes."
Andre Heidari hasn't made many.
The freshman from Bakersfield has converted 13 of 15 field-goal attempts, including a 50-yarder against Stanford. Heidari was prepared to make another 50-yard kick at the end of regulation against the Cardinal, he said, but officials ruled that time had expired.
"I was definitely in the zone to make it," he said. "I was just so focused. I think it was my time."
Unlike kickers in the past who came to USC as walk-ons, Heidari was given a scholarship by special-teams coach John Baxter.
"Baxter said, 'You're going to have to come in and start as a freshman,' " Heidari recalled. "That was a dream come true. That's what everyone wants to do."
Receiver Marqise Lee won a starting position by wowing coaches during training camp. The 6-foot, 190-pound Lee started the opener against Minnesota and has started five games since. He is second on the team with 34 receptions, five for touchdowns.
"I wasn't expecting myself to come in and play this much, but I'm happy I am," said Lee, who acknowledged that he continues to experience growing pains.
"I'm still struggling," he said. "You probably don't see it in the game, but I know I am."
Marcus Martin also continues to learn.
Two games into the season, coaches installed the 6-3, 332-pound freshman at left guard, slotting him between tackle Matt Kalil and center Khaled Holmes, both fourth-year juniors.
"I still feel like a rookie," said Martin, who played at Crenshaw High. "When people talk about starting as a freshman, they make it sound so easy. But there's the system, the coaching, the speed of the game.
"It was hard."
Freshman linebacker Tre Madden might find out Friday. The former Mission Viejo High standout is expected to start if redshirt freshman Dion Bailey, the Trojans' leading tackler, is not cleared to play after suffering a concussion against Stanford.
Madden could be on the field with redshirt freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard and freshman middle linebacker Lamar Dawson, who was sidelined for several games because of an ankle injury but has been playing more in a rotation with senior Chris Galippo.
USC cannot contend for a Pac-12 title or bowl game this season because of NCAA sanctions, but the experience gained by the freshmen and other young players should serve the Trojans well next season, when they regain bowl eligibility and begin the first of three years of scholarship reductions.
"That," Kiffin said, "is part of the plan."