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USC Trojans' position battles

Scott Felix still seems like the starter at linebacker but Jabari Ruffin and Porter Gustin could challenge him in the fall. Garry Paskwietz/ESPN.com

The USC Trojans are well enough along in summer throwing sessions that we're able to get a sense of where things stand for some of the top position battles will be played out in fall camp, which begins on August 8.

Tailback: There are two experienced potential starters here in senior Tre Madden and junior Justin Davis, and if both are healthy this could be a position of strength for the team. Madden has missed two of the last three years with injury (2012-knee, 2014-turf toe) but in between was a 2013 season where he showed his ability by opening the season with three straight 100-yard games, the first USC tailback to do that since Marcus Allen in 1981. Madden sat out spring ball this year and has been limited this summer in his return but when he's been out there he has looked real strong at his listed playing weight of 225. Davis showed flashes at times in 2014 of being at full strength after suffering an ankle injury in his true freshman year but he wasn't able to consistently show his darting moves. During the summer workouts, however, it looks like the “old” Justin Davis and that can be viewed as good news because he can be a talented runner. The Trojans went with one lead back in 2014 with Buck Allen but the duo of Madden and Davis are good enough that it shouldn't really matter which one is starting as both will be used a lot.

Wide receiver opposite JuJu Smith: There's no question that Smith has locked up one starting spot and should be the lead receiver on the team. Darreus Rogers is listed as the other starter in the USC media guide but, based on what we've seen this summer, he hasn't shown separation from incoming junior college receivers Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton. Both of the JC receivers have solid pass catching ability and, at 6-foot-4, they both bring good size as well. Whitney is more of a speed option of the two while Hampton brings more bulk on a 220-pound frame. You don't always know what you're going to get with junior college players until they show up on the field but so far it looks like the Trojans got two good ones here, and they should push Rogers throughout camp for a starting spot.

Tight end: This spot remains a mystery even as the calendar moves ever so close to the beginning of camp. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was on the field for the first month of summer workouts and is listed in the media guide as the starter, which would give the Trojans a veteran presence, but Jalen has yet to stake a firm claim to the job based on his on-field play. That has left the door open for other options, particularly walk-on Connor Spears who continues to be a steady presence. You can see the potential of true freshman Tyler Petite as a pass-catcher but it would be a lot to expect him to be the starter out of the gate, particularly as a run blocker, and it would be ideal to ease him into the mix as he learns the system and adds bulk. Another new body at the position this summer is former offensive lineman Cyrus Hobbi, who left the program after the 2013 season on a medical redshirt but who has slimmed down and could come back as a walk-on at a new spot. Cyrus isn't what you would call a natural pass-catcher but he has looked better than expected this summer in that role, and in situations like this where the Trojans are looking for any answers he could provide a knowledgeable blocker to the rotation.

Rush end: It's harder to judge linemen in summer drills as opposed to skill players but the read here is that Scott Felix is still in the lead role for the starting spot. Felix has certainly been taking all the first unit reps and he looks as comfortable as we've seen from him in his USC career. There is a lot of talk that Jabari Ruffin could be a challenge to his spot but we just haven't seen Ruffin on the field enough to really know where he stands as he continues to rehab from a knee injury suffered in fall camp last year. One incoming player to watch is Porter Gustin, the versatile 6-5, 250-pound true freshman who has shown a knack in these workouts for getting into the backfield and pressuring the quarterback. This is one competition that could be very interesting to watch as fall camp progresses.

Free safety: The early projections had Leon McQuay as the favorite to earn the job but the move of Chris Hawkins from corner to safety has made this a tight race. McQuay has looked good enough this summer to say that he is ready for a bigger role but Hawkins has made a quick adjustment to his new position and could easily end up being the starter. Both bring the experience of being in the program for several years and with so many opposing offenses featuring either multiple receiver sets or a hurry-up style there is certainly going to be a need for the Trojans to counter with more than one player here.

Nickel corner: The Trojans run a nickel defense so often that you can really consider three corners as starters, and two of them will be Kevon Seymour and Adoree' Jackson. But the arrival this summer of Iman Marshall, who has been as good as advertised and will likely be that third corner, could allow the coaches to reduce Adoree's reps on defense when only two corners are needed, which could allow Jackson to play an even bigger role on offense.

Offensive line: The real drama is going to come when Chad Wheeler comes back from his knee injury, which will leave the Trojans with six very good starters and only five spots. I realize this will give the coaches an opportunity to do some rotating, which will be a benefit, but the reality is that one of those good players is going to start the game as a reserve.

Placekicker: There hasn't been any kicking drills during summer workouts so there is no update here but that hasn't changed the fact that the battle between Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood could end up being one of the most important of fall camp.