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Top storylines through 3 weeks of spring ball

by Garry Paskwietz

With three weeks of spring ball now in the books for the Trojans here is an update on a few of the top storylines that we’ve seen so far.

Quarterback battle

Through the first two weeks of spring it looked like Max Browne was in a comfortable spot in his quest for the starting job. Max came out looking every bit the veteran and at the end of those two weeks Clay Helton publicly announced that Browne was “ahead” in the competition, the first time he had acknowledged any kind of edge for either Max or Sam Darnold. Over the last week, however, Darnold has turned things up a notch with a string of impressive practices that have been noted by Helton and many practice observers.

What we’ve seen from Sam over the last week are flashes of the potential that Sam has with his physical skills. His arm is plenty strong, if not as consistent as Browne yet. And Sam can definitely run, and he’s a big guy when he does it. One thing people need to realize about Sam is that he’s a very good athlete, a former league MVP in basketball as a HS sophomore, with family bloodlines in football, basketball and Olympic volleyball.

So what Sam has done is “close the gap”, so to speak, but Max still sits deservingly with the first unit. The most impressive thing to me about Max so far this spring has been his accuracy. It’s a rare off-target throw from Max to the point where it surprises you when he has the occasional miss. One former SC quarterback in attendance last week said the receivers just need to open their pockets and the ball drops right in, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it speaks to how well he is throwing the ball.

The situation is turning out great for Helton with a starter who is playing as well as you could hope him to play and a young guy who is genuinely playing well enough to keep it a competition. It’s going to make things very interesting over the next two weeks to see how this develops, and how it impacts Helton’s ability to make a decision on a starter at the end of spring. My read is that it would be premature to pick a guy at the moment, but you never know what can happen over the next two weeks, especially in the spring game in front of a big Trojan crowd.

It’s also important to remember spring quarterback competitions such as the one that took place between Matt Cassel and Matt Leinart. Cassel was the one who would have been considered the favorite going into spring and it ended up being a close competition throughout, and if you would have polled the media at the end it would have been Cassel as the projected starter. But Norm Chow was blown away by the decisions Leinart made and his completion percentage during spring and he felt that #11 was the guy, a decision that worked out pretty well. It remains to be seen what Clay Helton will do, but it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch it unfold.

Interior d-line

The Trojans headed into spring with four potential starters (Green, Bigelow, Jefferson, Daniel) for the three interior spots but that group has taken a hit with Bigelow’s knee injury that will keep him out for at least the majority of the season, and a back injury for Jefferson that has limited his availability this spring.

Because of that, we’ve gotten a look at the depth along the interior and it’s being stretched real thin. As it was, the four projected starters included three true sophomores and a junior, none of whom had previously been a full-time starter, but now with those injuries the two-deep line-up includes an early enrollee freshman and a pair of redshirt freshmen, and a starter who came in two years ago at 240 pounds.

Rasheem Green has been the top performer of the group and he is the starter at one defensive end spot. His back-up all spring has been Christian Rector, a redshirt freshman. Jacob Daniel was the reserve nose tackle behind Noah Jefferson but he has slid up to the starting spot with Jefferson out, while Liam Jimmons is now going with the 2’s as an early enrollee who has been on campus for two months. Malik Dorton is now the starter at the other defensive end, and it’s taken him two years to bulk up from that 240 weight to get to roughly 280. Kevin Scott, another redshirt freshman, is backing-up Dorton.

There is one additional body scheduled to arrive in the fall in Josh Fatu from the junior college ranks, and there is continued speculation that the coaches may look to flip someone from the offensive line but so far there has been no indication that they are looking to do that.

Injury impact

The injury to Bigelow has been the only major one suffered so far for the Trojans but there are others that have caused uncertainty in the depth charts during spring.

At the safety spot, Chris Hawkins has missed the entire spring after ankle surgery and right now John Plattenburg and Ykili Ross are also sidelined with injuries. That’s meant a lot of work for Marvell Tell and Leon McQuay, along with walk-on Matt Lopes, and we’ve also seen early enrollee C.J. Pollard split time between safety and corner.

Cam Smith will also sit out all spring while rehabbing from a knee injury and that has meant a lot of opportunity for guys like Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell, a pair of seniors who are taking advantage of the situation under a familiar coach in Clancy Pendergast. Olajuwon Tucker and John Houston have been in that mix as well, and Osa Masina joined the group this week after missing early parts of spring with a hamstring issue.

Finally, the center spot has been without the top two guys on the depth chart in Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers, so we’ve seen a lot of Nico Falah and Cole Smith.

Garry Paskwietz

A 1988 graduate of USC with a degree in Sports Information. Worked in sports marketing for LA Lakers and Miller Brewing Company. Began covering the Trojans in 1996 with the Trojan Football Fax. Founded WeAreSC in November 1998 with stints at Scout and ESPN. Emmy-winner while covering high school football at Fox Sports West.

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