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Trojan Talk: End-of-Spring edition

In this edition of Trojan Talk we give a position-by-position look at how the Trojans fared coming out of the first spring ball session under Clay Helton.

Garry Paskwietz

Johnny, the Trojans wrapped up spring ball on Saturday and the big news is the pending decision by Clay Helton on the naming of a quarterback. Clay said he will either name one or wait until fall and he will let us know that decision either way. I think the consensus coming out of the spring game was that Max Browne has done enough to be named the starter, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that based on what we saw in spring. If you’re looking for that veteran guy who is ready, both physically and mentally, then Browne checks off all the marks on the list. And that’s a good thing to see him perform well when it was time. I also take it as a good thing that Sam Darnold pushed Max as much as he did in spring. Talk about what you saw from Sam and how you see Helton’s decision playing out.

Johnny Curren

I think Sam really made this decision a lot more difficult for Helton to reach than most might have anticipated, because he really performed at a high level – particularly over the final three weeks of practice. He’s a got a strong arm, and he’s a great athlete, but what really impressed me was how cool and calm he was out there for such a young guy, and as Tyson Helton said, he just makes plays. He doesn’t have a command of the playbook like Browne does, but good things happen when he’s out there. All of that being said, I think Browne does get the nod, and likely in the next day or two. Helton consistently said that he was in the lead, while also praising his poise and game management skills. And I think naming him now really allows him to embrace an important leadership role.

Garry Paskwietz

I agree, I think Helton names Max in the next day or two. Let’s also give credit to Jalen Greene, who continues to show flashes of someone with unique skills for the position. He’s not your polished drop-back guy like Browne but he’s got a real strong arm, needs work on his accuracy, and he also is a threat running with the ball. I can see him being used with a specific package of plays. And Matt Fink, the early enrollee, also showed some good things, will be interesting to see him develop. OK, let’s go to tailback, one of my favorite spots on the team right now. The leader is Justin Davis and he really showed an advanced physical dimension this year to answer the call from Helton for a physical run game. Helton noted that several times this spring with how impressed he was with Justin. He’s clearly the #1 guy but Ronald Jones is Ronald Jones, and it looks like Aca’Cedric Ware is ready to be a contributor. Talk about the two Texans.

Johnny Curren

Jones and Ware both had solid spring showings. Jones definitely flashed his trademark big-play ability with regularity while taking reps with the No. 1 and No. 2 offensive groups, and I really liked the way that new running backs coach Tommie Robinson really got after him in the pass-blocking drills each day, because it was his only real noticeable weakness as a freshman. I think that’s really going to pay off down the line. Ware got a ton of work this spring, and I think he really impressed Robinson and Co. with his hard-nosed, north-south rushing style. He reminds me a little of Buck Allen, and that’s certainly a good thing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become a part of the rotation in the fall, but we’ll see, there are only so many carries to go around.

Garry Paskwietz

I like the Buck comparison, can really see it with the way they both run hard. Another guy who will be in the mix somewhere is Dominic Davis, primarily because of the speed he brings. And the situation at fullback seems to have been settled for now with the move of walk-on Reuben Peters from linebacker. Peters has good size and he will hit you, hopefully it works out in the fall. Moving to receiver, obviously the top guy is JuJu Smith-Schuster and he definitely performed at a level one would expect, but the guy who I thought raised his game this spring was Darreus Rogers. His catch in the spring game where he went up high was impressive, and he did that all spring. What did you think of Rogers and where he is right now, and how do you see things playing out in the slot?

Johnny Curren

Rogers was consistent throughout the spring, and he certainly capped the five weeks of practice off with a very strong showing in the spring game. We saw the ball spread around a lot more this spring than in recent years at USC, and if that trend continues into the fall, I think Rogers, as the likely No. 2 wide out, could be the prime candidate to benefit — and I think he’s ready for that responsibility. Another veteran, Steven Mitchell Jr. had a solid spring, and he looks to have the inside track on the slot position. But watch out for Deontay Burnett and Ajene Harris there as well. Burnett isn’t the biggest receiver, but he’s a big-play threat who just always seems to come down with the ball. Harris was incredibly consistent as well, but he spent most of his time at cornerback down the stretch.

Garry Paskwietz

And there is always the Adoree’ factor as well in the slot. I agree about Rogers being that #2 guy, it seems like everyone has been waiting for Mitchell to grab that role but think it’s more likely to be Darreus as the #2 option. Plus you have depth with Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton as seniors, and we saw a talented freshman in Josh Imatorbhebhe. At tight end, it’s funny how things can turn so quickly. Last year the TE spot was a real concern after losing the top two guys on the depth chart but this spring showed three tight ends who are capable of making plays. I’m probably most impressed with the playmaking potential of Tyler Petite but Taylor McNamara could easily be the starter and Daniel Imatorbhebhe is ready to go as well.

Johnny Curren

USC does have three very solid options there now. I think McNamara might be the most reliable all-around option, but Petite and Imatorbhebhe look to have the biggest upside. Imatorbhebhe, in particular, really impressed me down the stretch with his ability to stretch the field, and he came up big in the spring game with 5 catches for 65 yards and the 1 touchdown. This trio can really add a new dimension to the offense in the fall.

Garry Paskwietz

And now to possibly the most important position group in terms of developing the physical identity that Helton wants to set for the offense. I like the coaching style of Neil Callaway and am optimistic about what he can do with this veteran group. You simply can’t ask for much more than what the Trojans have at tackle with a pair of multi-year starting seniors like Chad Wheeler (now in the 310 pound range) and Zach Banner (north of 350 pounds) along with a real talented back-up in Edoga. The coaches took several looks at Banner in the LT role but I think it ends up being Wheeler at LT and Banner at RT. One of the most interesting things to me this spring was the way Callaway rotated the OG spot, he gave the top four guys equal long looks and it may result in a new starter, tell us what you saw.

Johnny Curren

That was one of the real surprises. Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama have 36 starts between them, but they found themselves splitting time throughout the spring. You had Talamaivao and Jordan Simmons alternating days with the No. 1 offense at right guard, and Mama and Chris Brown alternating days at left guard. Clay Helton said this is a competition that will likely extend on into the fall, but I found it interesting that over the final two days of the spring it was Talamaivao and Brown who ran with the No. 1 group. Could Mama be in for a serious battle here?

Garry Paskwietz

That’s my read for Damien, and it says a lot about Chris Brown. Callaway said he would put Viane as the top guy from the guard group in spring, for what that’s worth. I thought a real pleasant surprise came at the center spot, where the top two guys on the depth chart (Toa and Khaliel) were out but Nico Falah stepped in and did an admirable job, while Cole Smith showed strong fundamentals in the Callaway line drills, he’s going to be something when his time comes. Well, we go from the strength of a deep offensive line group to the reality of a defensive line group that took a hit this spring with the loss of Kenny Bigelow and simply doesn’t feature a lot of depth right now. I would say Rasheem Green was the top performer along the interior, and I liked what I saw from Noah Jefferson when he was healthy but he battled back issues and left the spring game early with a hyperextended elbow. Those two could really form a nice duo if they are in there together. The biggest surprise probably came from Malik Dorton who is playing in place of Bigelow right now and showed a quick first step to help get into the backfield. Those are the starters coming out of spring, talk about what you saw from the reserve group.

Johnny Curren

Jacob Daniel is another guy who took some periodic reps with the ones at nose tackle, and with a strong summer in the conditioning program, I think he’s someone who can make an impact in the fall and potentially challenge for a starting job. Defensive end Christian Rector really showed a lot this spring. Having put on some much-needed weight, Helton pointed to him as being one of the most consistent performers along the defensive line. I think he’s definitely going to be in the rotation. Kevin Scott is another defensive end who could play in a reserve role. And then there’s Liam Jimmons. An early-entrant freshman, he’s still probably a year away from being a reliable contributor, but I was impressed with the aggressive, hard-nosed mindset that he brought out to practice each day. Although still on the lighter side, he even took some reps with the No. 2 defense at nose, and he held his own.

Garry Paskwietz

Yeah, for a high school defensive end who enrolled early and was moved to the interior you had to like the way Jimmons went out there and played hard. I think things look a little better on the edge with the OLB spots, which will be critical to apply pressure in the Clancy Pendergast defense. Tell us what you saw there.

Johnny Curren

Porter Gustin spent the spring with the No. 1 group at the Predator OLB spot, with Uchenna Nwosu at the SAM OLB position, and they both shined, emerging as perfect fits in Pendergast’s attacking scheme. They both made plays in the offensive backfield with great regularity. Jabari Ruffin was the primary backup at the Predator spot, but he can also line up at SAM, and he was just as impressive as the players in front of him for much of the spring — particularly in the spring game where he really stood out. Early entrant freshman Oluwole Betiku certainly didn’t disappoint. Still extremely raw, he’s just so impressive physically, and he came on down the stretch, recording the only sack of the spring game. The more work he gets in this summer, the better he’s going to get, so there’s reason to believe he can contribute right off the bat as a freshman.

Garry Paskwietz

I really liked the way Ruffin played the two times the team was in the Coliseum. On the inside, obviously Cameron Smith was out so that is one starting spot that will be taken in the fall, but we saw five players get a lot of reps this spring and I think the ILB spots are going to be in good shape moving forward. Michael Hutchings was a pleasant surprise as one starter all spring, and Quinton Powell also saw his share of days as a starter. Neither of these guys would have been projected as a likely starter based on past work but Pendergast knew their games from when he was here before and he brought out a higher level of play for both. I do think Osa Masina will end up being a legit candidate for a starting spot when fall rolls around but he missed a lot of early spring with a hamstring issue. Olajuwon Tucker and John Houston are also options. That’s not a bad group, especially when Smith is added in the fall. Let’s head to the secondary where the safety spot dealt with a lot of injuries, talk about what you saw at safety.

Johnny Curren

Depth certainly was an issue, but I thought Marvel Tell and Leon McQuay both showed well as the two primary starters. Tell looked like he was growing up before our eyes each day as he brought a physical mindset out there, while playing with confidence. McQuay is another one of those guys who showed a little bit of renewed life with Pendergast back on campus. He’s had his fair share of ups and downs in his time at USC, but all signs point to him potentially ending his career on a strong note. Unfortunately, John Plattenburg suffered an ankle injury early in camp, so we never got a real good look at him this spring. Matt Lopes was the primary backup who stood out. He’s been around for awhile now, so he’s a reliable performer who could play an important role. Early-entrant freshman C.J. Pollard lined up at both safety and cornerback, and while he was understandably shaky early, I thought he made nice strides throughout the spring.

Garry Paskwietz

Yeah, I think Tell is the next big hitter at safety for the Trojans, and Pollard had perhaps the hit of the day in the spring game. At corner, there wasn’t a ton of depth, in fact we saw Ajene Harris get flipped over because of a lack of depth, but the biggest thing to me was the performance of Iman Marshall. You mentioned Tell growing up before our eyes, the same can be said of Biggie, who showed he is no longer a freshman out there. I loved his daily battles with JuJu Smith-Schuster, each pushing the other to get better. Isaiah Langley showed a lot of progress getting the starting reps opposite Marshall but the move of Ajene could prove to be real interesting. As much as I liked what he was doing on offense, we have other receivers, what we don’t have is a lot of corners. And he is someone who can seamlessly make the switch. Lastly we will talk special teams, but since we didn’t see a lot of punter Chris Tilbey, we can only really comment on the performance of placekicker Matt Boermeester, how did he fare in spring?

Johnny Curren

Boermeester was up-and-down through the first half of the spring, but what I liked was how he finished up. He was more consistent over the final two weeks, hitting a number of field goals from 50-yards-plus out. That bodes well for him as he heads into the summer, and eventually, into fall camp, where he figures to face some competition in blue shirt kicker Michael Brown.

Garry Paskwietz

That’s our look at the position-by-position updates coming out of spring, and now we wait for the QB decision from Clay Helton. Thanks Johnny.



Garry Paskwietz
Author
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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