While the defense was a sore spot and the Trojans ultimately suffered defeat at the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, those looking for silver linings need look no further than the play of linebacker Raesjon Davis.

The second-year linebacker split time with Shane Lee, who had arguably one of his poorest games in a Trojan uniform. Davis finished with three tackles after entering the game with only five on the season. One of them keyed a third-quarter stop when Davis got to Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt on a third-and-11.

The 6-foot-1 Mater Dai product was a top-50 recruit in the 2021 class. In his first two seasons, two different coaching staffs relegated him to a special teams player. As USC’s late-season aversion to tackling raged on, fans clamored a bit more for personnel changes.

When Lincoln Riley and Co. turned to Davis in the third quarter of the Cotton Bowl, he offered an encouraging response.

“He’s one that’s exciting,” Riley told reporters this week, per 247Sports’ Trevor Booth. “In the game where we weren’t tackling well, came in and had some really nice kind of forceful, confident tackles. And that really showed up.

“I think, could we have given (Davis) an opportunity earlier than that? Absolutely,” Riley continued. “And I would say, hey, was there something from a coaching standpoint? Or did we make a mistake by not doing that? We very well may have.

“Then the other thing I would put it back on, it’s like, I tell the guys this every year at the start of the year, ‘If you make these decisions for us, 50-50, meaning 50-50 on if you’re going to start or not, or 50-50 on whether we’re going to put you in the game or not, if you give us 50-50, we’re going to be right on some and wrong on some. So make it clear, where there’s no doubt we’ve got to put this guy in the game. There’s no doubt you should be a starter.”

With only three tackles in the game and USC still losing, Davis’ performance against Tulane might not be one that makes him an undeniable pick to start at linebacker next season in the middle of the Trojan defense, but given the way that unit performed this season, every job should be up for grabs this offseason.

Lee will be back, as will Eric Gentry. Ralen Goforth, a No. 3 linebacker for USC this past fall, has since transferred to Washington but USC was able to find a more-than-suitable replacement in former Oklahoma State standout Mason Cobb. USC also added a player Riley believes to be the best linebacker in the entire 2023 high school class in Louisiana standout Tackett Curtis — a player who is already on campus.

There should be plenty of competition in that group this offseason.