LOS ANGELES (AP) It's not about bragging rights among the three Southern California linebackers who made their college debuts last weekend. If it was, Cameron Smith, Osa Masina and Porter Gustin would have plenty to brag about.
Smith became the first true freshman to start a season opener at inside linebacker since 1978; Gustin flashed his skills as a pass rusher; and Masina scored a touchdown as the No. 8 Trojans rolled to a 55-6 win over Arkansas State.
''I think we're all just feeding off each other and it's great to see these guys playing awesome,'' Smith said. ''It's going to be a fun year.''
Masina kicked off the fun when he picked up a backward pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Salt Lake City native showed the awareness USC lacked in last season's trip to Utah, when a backward pass by quarterback Cody Kessler on the second play of the game was returned for a touchdown in a 24-21 loss that ultimately cost the Trojans the Pac-12 South title and a berth in the conference championship game.
''I was just pursing the ball and I saw it lying there, no whistle, so that just means it was a live ball,'' Masina said. ''I was wondering what my teammates were doing not picking it up, so I did my duty, scored the touchdown. Really, it was a flash. The crowd was cheering and my teammates were cheering for me. It was a big moment.''
Masina finished with four tackles, including one tackle for loss. Gustin, also from Utah, added three tackles, and Smith's seven tackles were tied for the team lead. Each saw extensive playing time for USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who intends to use a deeper defensive rotation in hopes of avoiding last season's late-game collapses.
''That will be the plan until it goes astray, and then you make the proper adjustments,'' Sarkisian said. ''The only way in this game that you get better is by playing. You have to make mistakes and realize that's what Coach has been talking about.''
Smith, who also broke up a pass, agreed with Sarkisian.
''Overall there is definitely room to improve,'' Smith said. ''I'll be looking to that on Monday, and just got to keep getting better every day.''
Next week's game against Idaho should provide plenty of playing time for the 18 freshmen that saw their first action against the Red Wolves, but none might be more important than Gustin. He played middle linebacker in high school. But at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds he can get into the backfield, prompting coaches to move him to the outside.
The USC defense struggled to pressure quarterbacks last season and managed just one sack against Arkansas State, so Gustin's rapid development is welcome.
All three freshmen are helping each other get up to speed. Gustin and Masina became friends on the recruiting camp and all-star game circuit, often rooming together. Smith was soon right with them.
''We've all been together, working together out of the field, getting used to everything together, having the same struggles,'' Gustin said.