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With status of Jordan Addison uncertain, USC’s reserve receivers face test of their progress

Michael Jackson III had played just a single snap through USC’s first six games, waiting and waiting and waiting for his turn until two Saturdays ago, when the sophomore receiver was called upon at the most critical moment of the season.

It was third and eight, with just over six minutes remaining, and the Trojans stood on the doorstep of the red zone, deadlocked late with Utah. USC star receiver Jordan Addison, having suffered a leg injury, was relegated to crutches on the sideline. So Lincoln Riley sent Jackson to fill the void left by the 2021 Biletnikoff Award-winning wideout. He didn’t disappoint.

While Utah unleashed a blitz, Jackson exploded forward for a few steps, before retreating suddenly toward the line of scrimmage, where a screen pass awaited. Tahj Washington threw a block. A lane opened. And Jackson, who hadn’t caught a pass since last December, made a defender miss before striding into the end zone, turning his first catch into a 20-yard, go-ahead touchdown.

“We had a lot of confidence based on what we’ve seen on the practice field the last several weeks that he was going to make the play,” Riley said of Jackson after Utah mounted a comeback to beat USC, 43-42. “I think he’s got a really bright future here. We didn’t think twice about calling and doing [the play]. It was an easy decision.”

USC might have no other choice in its return from the week off but to rely on reserve receivers, like Jackson, to fill the void left by Addison, who still hasn’t been seen participating at practice since the loss at Utah. Riley characterized Addison — as well as linebackers Eric Gentry (ankle) and Ralen Goforth (hand) — as “day to day,” but the status of all three key contributors remains in question ahead of Saturday‘s game at Arizona.

“I think everybody’s going to be fine,” Riley said Tuesday. “We’ll see how they progress throughout the week.”

If Addison isn’t able to play, several other Trojan pass-catchers could get the chance to prove how much they’ve progressed.

Jackson spent much of the eight months before his breakout score suffering through one strained hamstring after another. (He estimates six in total.) “It was a long road,” Jackson said last week.

“I know his frustration level was at a boiling point,” Riley said. “But again, another great example of, if you hang in there, then good things can happen.”

Receiver Michael Jackson III raises triumphant arms after scoring a touchdown during USC’s spring game at the Coliseum.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Washington had to hold on last spring and summer as transfer receiver after transfer receiver piled onto an already dense depth chart at USC. The leading returning receiver on the roster from 2021, Washington had to work his way back up the pecking order this season.

He did just that through the first half of the season. Riley recently deemed Washington “one of the most valuable players on the team,” while singling out his work as a blocker and on special teams, in addition to his pass-catching.

If Addison is forced to miss any time, Washington could be thrust into more of a leading role.

“It’s only up from here,” said Washington, who has 214 receiving yards, the third most on the team. “That’s the bright side, seeing where we’re at right now and knowing how much we can get better.”

The next three weeks — with matchups against three teams in the bottom half of the Pac-12 — should offer plenty of opportunities for other pass-catchers to emerge. Riley also noted freshman receiver C.J. Williams as another player he expected to have an impact over the season’s second half. Washington offered a similar endorsement.

“Seeing his growth till now, his understanding of the game, you can tell it’s starting to slow down for him,” Washington said of Williams. “He’s really getting the hang of everything. I’m excited to see his future.”

No one in USC’s receiving corps has waited longer for his marquee moment than sixth-year senior Josh Falo. It had been nearly three years since Falo had caught a pass before he reeled in two for touchdowns against Utah.

The years in between included some dark times for the tight end. Falo wouldn’t share any details of what he went through with reporters, but said only that he “wouldn’t wish that [experience] upon anyone”.

Similar to Washington and Jackson, his experience at USC has rapidly improved in recent weeks. His role continues to expand. During the last three games, Falo has played 88 snaps.

With USC bound to dig deeper into its depth at receiver in the coming weeks, there are plenty of chances for further growth from here.

“I’ve had my ups and downs during my time here, but this, I mean, I wanted it to be like this for my last year,” Falo said. “But whatever it was, good or bad, I was going to ride with this team no matter what. I’m just glad the ball fell on the good side of it.”

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