Garry Paskwietz and Johnny Curren discuss the first two weeks of USC spring ball:
GarryP: OK, we’ve had two weeks of spring ball so far, before we get started on the position review, what would be something that has stood out to you so far?
Johnny: To me, one that has really stood out is just how far ahead this team is compared to last year. In the spring of 2014, this team was really still trying to figure itself out. The players were still acclimating themselves to the playbook and a new coaching staff, so it wasn’t the smoothest of sessions. This time around I feel like the team hit the ground running. They’re all on the same page when it comes to the playbook and in meshing with the coaching staff, and there is just more energy in general.
GarryP: I think one area we’ve really seen that play out is in the secondary, as I’ve been pretty impressed with how that group has performed so far. We’ll get into it more later when we talk about that spot but we’re seeing a lot of solid performances back there. Let’s get things started with talking about quarterback. We’re not hearing a ton of talk about Cody Kessler and that’s a good thing, you don’t want to take a 5th year senior Heisman candidate for granted so it’s important to note that he has been what you would expect him to be this spring. The guy who has really jumped out to me is Max Browne as he continues to show the progress of a former #1 recruit entering his 3rd year in the program.
Johnny: Yes, Kessler is definitely living up to expectations. On Browne, the key word you bring up is “progress.” Throughout his time on campus he’s continually made strides…when it comes to his physical make-up, his technique, his comfort with the playbook, etc…and that has to be very reassuring for Sarkisian and Helton to see. He certainly appears to be on the right path to taking over the No. 1 job when Kessler leaves.
GarryP: At running back, we haven’t seen a ton of Tre Madden so that has meant a lot of Justin Davis and Soma Vainuku, in addition to extended reps for James Toland. I’m pretty pleased with where Davis is at in terms of looking completely healthy from his freshman year ankle injury, I don’t know that he was ever 100% healthy and comfortable during the 2014 season but he looks like it now. He also seems to be taking on a veteran role, which makes sense as a junior. And you know I like seeing more Soma with the ball in his hands and I think he looks good doing it, I just wish I felt more secure in knowing that we will see it in the fall. I hope so.
Johnny: Agree on Vainuku. He brings a different look and attitude to the spot that really adds a unique dynamic to the offense when he’s in there. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a decent number of carries in a game. I think that Davis has looked great — easily the best since before his injury. You can tell by the way he runs that he’s confident, and that can do wonders for a back. I expect big things from him in 2015. We aren’t seeing Madden participate in any 11-on-11 periods, but I have liked what I’ve seen from him in the 7-on-7 and individual periods. He’s running and cutting well. Fullback Jahleel Pinner has shown off some nice hands coming out of the backfield, so it will be interesting to see if he can be incorporated more into the offense as well.
GarryP: The thing that always jumps out to me about Soma is what a natural runner he is, he’s just stuck in a fullback’s body. Moving on to wide receiver, where JuJu Smith has been arguably the best player on the field for the offense and the only person to challenge him has been Adoree’ Jackson when he flips over. Do you agree that it’s getting to the point where you just can’t ignore what’s happening with Adoree’ on offense? As much as I love him on defense and have no desire to limit his role on that side of the ball, I just think you have to find a way to get him more involved with the offense and Sark certainly seems headed in that direction. And then give a quick thought on how you see the others such as Steven Mitchell (had a strong start to spring), Darreus Rogers, Ajene Harris and Isaac Whitney.
Johnny: Jackson is just one of those unique playmakers, and when you have a player like that, you have to get him the ball, so I do think they’re going to try to utilize him more on offense. Like you said, you don’t want to limit him on defense, because he’s just as dominant there, but maybe with the influx of DB talent coming in, as well as the development of other players there, there’s a way they can periodically give him some plays off on defense to allow more play on offense. In regard to Smith, he certainly appears ready to take on the role as that No. 1 receiver, and Steven Mitchell entered spring ball with a lot of buzz, and I think he’s lived up to the hype so far — shining in the slot as well as outside. Rogers didn’t do much to stand out early, but he has really started to come on over the last week. Harris looked solid, but he tweaked his hamstring last Thursday, and we’ll have to keep an eye on that — he’s battled injuries in the past. Whitney is still playing catch-up coming from the JUCO ranks, but he appears to have outstanding physical tools as a bigger receiver, and it will be interesting to watch his development.
GarryP: And then the tight end spot has really been thrown for a loop with the uncertain status of Bryce Dixon. Lots of rumors swirling and the only thing we know for certain is that Bryce is not available so that has meant a lot of Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and walk-on Connor Spears. I wouldn’t say either guy has really stood out but they have had some moments. This could be a whole different group in the fall with Dixon possibly being back, as well as Tyler Petite and Caleb Wilson, and maybe even Chris Willson. For now though, pretty limited.
Johnny: Cope-Fitzpatrick has shown promise, but he’s still shaking off some rust after missing the 2014 season, and he isn’t quite back to where he was last spring and summer. Spears has done a solid job in the extended opportunity that he has received, but this position certainly needs some shoring up, and Petite and Wilson — and potentially Willson — should aid with that. Really, though, this unit wouldn’t be the same without Dixon, so that situation will certainly be worth keeping an eye on.
GarryP: It has been very comforting to look at the offensive line and see the whole starting unit is back. And that also includes Chad Wheeler, who hasn’t been taking part but has been a regular and active onlooker. But rather than focus on the starting group, since most everyone is familiar with them, I want to talk about the reserve line-up that is starting to look pretty good with everyone healthy. Guys like Nico Falah (got time with 1’s at LT), Jordan Simmons, Chris Brown, Khaliel Rodgers and Chuma Edoga can form a nice five of their own. And we even saw a scenario with Toa Lobendahn as the back-up center, a position that many fans think could be his ultimate spot.
Johnny: It’s been quite a while since the Trojans have been this deep along the OL. Falah has been one of the surprises of camp, drawing praise from Sarkisian as a result. After fighting back from his knee injury, I’ve been pleased with the progress that Simmons has shown so far. Edoga, meanwhile, has made a statement with his early play as a real player to keep your eye on for the future. It will be interesting to see if he can develop enough through this summer to step in and earn some immediate minutes. As far as Lobendahn goes, he’s just had an outstanding camp where he’s shown off tremendous versatility. He bounces back and forth between tackle and center without a hitch.
GarryP: Things are not so deep this spring along the defensive line although that will change pretty drastically in the fall. Right now we’re missing Antwaun Woods, Greg Townsend, Kenny Bigelow and Jabari Ruffin (who could be at rush end) so that has meant a 2nd unit line that features 2 walk-ons and 2 redshirt freshmen who have yet to play. The good news is that it means a ton of work in the starting line-up for guys who could use it in Delvon Simmons, Cody Temple, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix.
Johnny: There is certainly a fair amount of pressure on the shoulders of Pelon and Simmons to help replace the production lost by the departure of Leonard Williams, and they have come up with some standout play at times, but as I’ve mentioned before, I think they probably need to do it on a more consistent basis. As you said, things will look drastically different in the fall when the injured players return and the team adds a host of talented incoming freshmen. Some of the newcomers will undoubtedly be asked to contribute immediately.
GarryP: One of the redshirt freshman who has flashed a few times is Malik Dorton. Not saying he’s ready to go yet but it’s been encouraging to see. Let’s head back to linebacker. Su’a Cravens has been Su’a Cravens and he looks more and more comfortable in the hybrid OLB role. I like what we’ve seen from Quinton Powell behind him, I’m not too caught up in his weight issues because he just seems to make a lot of plays. How are you viewing Lamar Dawson so far in his bid to take over for Hayes Pullard in the middle? And give a quick thought on Cameron Smith.
Johnny: Agree on both Cravens and Powell. Both of those guys have been two of the stars of camp so far. On Dawson, he’s exceeded my expectations. Sarkisian even made a comment earlier this spring that he looks like a new player compared to last season. With his jersey number (55), he has a lot to try to live up to, but I do think he’s poised to start at the MIKE spot. Behind him, Smith has been another surprise of camp, not just because he’s been making plays, but because he’s looked so athletic in doing so. Collecting two interceptions over the last two practices, he’s been better in coverage than I think most people thought he would be.
GarryP: We touched a little on the secondary earlier but I want to go a little more in depth here. You’ve got Adoree’, who is on a different level as a corner, and then I think Kevon Seymour has turned into a very solid senior on the other side of him, and a definite team leader. I also think the safety spot has fared well led by John Plattenburg. Leon McQuay has had his share of moments too but I am going to be a little hesitant with Leon because I thought he looked good last spring and summer too. The thing with Leon is that he can be so athletically gifted at times, he really does have some skills. And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Hawkins or Jonathan Lockett yet. And what about Lamont Simmons, he still has some growth to show in his frame but I really do like his potential. So far in spring I would call this the surprise group of the team.
Johnny: Absolutely, I’ve really enjoyed watching the defensive backs each day this spring. Jackson and Seymour look like a fantastic duo out there at CB, and Plattenburg has shown great growth at safety, and he’s another guy who Sarkisian has raved about. I’m with you on McQuay — I’ll wait to see if his play continues through the spring before making a judgement. One thing I’ve really liked, though, is the versatility shown by Hawkins and Lockett as they bounce back-and-forth between cornerback and safety. I honestly believe they have the ability to line up at either spot, and I think that will do so much for this unit in the long term. Simmons has made strides, making a nice pick this past Saturday, and when you factor in incoming freshmen Iman Marshall, Ykili Ross, Marvell Tell and Isaiah Langley, this is a group that looks to have a very bright future.
GarryP: And finally, we’ve had a chance to see quite a few placekicking sessions with Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood, give us your thoughts on how those have played out.
Johnny: Both guys have done well and I think it’s still too close to call in the competition there. I’ve actually been a little surprised with how accurate Wood has been, because he’s known as more of a kickoff guy. It’s also important to note just how big it is to have long snapper Zach Smith and holder Conner Sullivan back — Sarkisian said they have a lot to do with how well Boermeester and Wood are kicking.