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TEMPE, Arizona — For a month, Mason Cobb was everywhere except where he truly wanted to be.

He was a captain, a transfer from Oklahoma State who’d curried so much immediate favor that he was chosen to speak alongside USC’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams at Pac-12 media day. A nagging injury that kept him out for three weeks didn’t remove his presence; instead, the senior was perhaps more visible across his absence than he was in a six-tackle effort in Week Zero.

For a month, Cobb was no longer a linebacker, relegated to practice fields and sidelines. Instead, he was a lineman, telling media he’d helped to serve as a blocker in reps for his fellow ‘backers. He was a coach, signaling on the sidelines and “damn near calling the plays,” as he put it, for USC’s young guns on defense. He was even briefly – like his No. 13 brother on the roster – a quarterback, seen firing off passes in a hoodie to receivers in warmups before the Trojans’ game against Stanford.

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But keeping one’s self busy goes only so far if you’re not in your proper place. And removed from his ball-hawking ways at the center of USC’s defense, Cobb was yawning by halftime of the Trojans’ drubbing of Stanford.

“I was like, ‘Man, this game’s going too slow,’” Cobb recalled to media Tuesday. “We gotta pick it up.”

Optimism continues to brew around USC’s new-and-improved defensive front early this season, with Georgia transfer Bear Alexander giving opposing guards nightmares and Georgia State transfer Jamil Muhammad forming a fearsome pass-rush duo with Solomon Byrd. But the full cavalry hadn’t quite arrived yet, with Cobb stuck in street clothes for most of the first quarter of the year.

Saturday at Arizona State, USC’s defensive quarterback will return from injury just in time to give head coach Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch a final look at how rotations coalesce before a grueling run through the best of the Pac-12.

“Man, I’m excited,” Cobb said, a smile peeking through during Tuesday’s media availability. “Practice feels like a game to me, so just flyin’ around, having fun, just keeping everyone high energy.”

USC’s inside linebacker group, Riley said Thursday, has been “more disjointed than most.” Returners Shane Lee and Raesjon Davis were limited by injury during fall camp; Eric Gentry has been in and out since the start of the year; freshman Tackett Curtis has faced a learning curve with how much ball-hawking is too much.

All of them, with Cobb’s return Saturday and widespread improved health, will see time against Arizona State, Riley said.

“We’re kinda excited to find, ‘All right, is there that ideal combination of guys that really perform at a high level together?’” Riley said.

Saturday against Arizona State, then, will be one final chance to find that “continuity” amid the linebacker group, as Riley put it, before the Trojans head to Boulder for their first real test of the season against coach Deion Sanders’ upstart Colorado Buffaloes.

They’ll do so heavily favored against a program with almost zero continuity of its own – Arizona State operating with a new regime under new head coach Kenny Dillingham, an incredible rash of bad injury luck, and such negative public perception of their chances Saturday (seriously, strike up a conversation with folks around Phoenix or Tempe) that it induced a Herm Edwards-style “You’re playing to win!” rant from Dillingham Wednesday.

When Arizona State has the ball

Arizona State’s QB1 and QB2, freshman Jaden Rashada and returner Trenton Bourguet, are probably out Saturday (definitely, for Rashada). Much of their offensive-line room and a couple skill players are out. It’s been a tough start for former Oregon offensive coordinator Dillingham.

USC defenders largely shrugged off questions from media this week about not quite knowing who they’d face under center for Arizona State. But ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported Friday that third-string QB Drew Pyne had recovered from injury to start against USC, which brings definite familiarity for Trojan returners: Pyne, a transfer from Notre Dame, stepped in and shredded USC’s defense for 318 yards and three touchdowns when USC traveled to South Bend last season.

Pyne certainly makes this game more interesting and has the touch to challenge USC’s secondary. Arizona State will also likely bring some Wildcat formations to the table, a staple of Dillingham’s offenses in the past and a scheme Cobb said the Trojans had been preparing for in practice.

When USC has the ball

Arizona State’s forced exactly zero turnovers through three games this season, all against weaker offenses than USC’s. Expect another relatively clean-and-tidy, high-20s-pass-attempts game for Caleb Williams that neither helps nor hurts his Heisman chances.

Who could truly shine is MarShawn Lloyd, who’s established himself as USC’s most dynamic back and is facing a Sun Devils team that doesn’t have a strong inside-linebacker corps containing the run. Saturday could bring Lloyd’s most touches and most yards of the season.

No. 5 USC (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) at ARIZONA STATE (1-2 overall, 0-0)

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Mountain America Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

TV/radio: FOX (Ch. 11)/790 AM

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