Following Saturday’s Spring Game, USC is down to its final two weeks of spring ball with six practices remaining. Here are five questions that could be answered (or not) over these final practices that will send USC into the summer and the 2021 football season.
What happens along the offensive line?
Several coaches said coming into spring that they wanted to get a look at a number of different orientations along the offensive line, flipping positions and moving starters and reserves around. Until Saturday, the only position switch we’d seen was Andrew Milek bumping up into the second-team group at center, shifting Justin Dedich to left tackle. On Saturday, the way USC divided the teams meant that there were different pairings at a number of spots. Right guard Liam Jimmons and right tackle Jalen McKenzie were together on the right side, but we had a chance to see Brett Neilon at center with Dedich at left guard, and a pairing of Courtland Ford and Jason Rodriguez on the left side together. More importantly, the USC coaches, and offensive line coach Clay McGuire, got to see those things.
It’ll be very interesting to watch the next six practices to see if the Spring Game was the first step in really shaking up the offensive line to let players move around, or if it was a one-off event due to the nature of the scrimmage. It was unlikely that USC would emerge from spring ball with a dominant offensive line. There were plenty of things to address from last season and there was going to be plenty of evaluation for McGuire to do. If the next two weeks feature the same first and second-team offensive lines of the first three weeks, that might speak volumes about how comfortable the Trojans are with that top group.
Spotlight on the backup quarterbacks?
There was definitely a learning curve for the true freshmen quarterbacks when spring ball started, but three weeks in now it might be time to start getting a little more serious about the fact that there is no established backup to starter Kedon Slovis. Nobody is going to supplant Slovis as the starter, but USC has not taken a starting quarterback from the first snap to the final whistle of a season healthy for the past three years.
Mo Hasan left Saturday’s scrimmage with an injury and Jaxson Dart showed some flashes of his athleticism and arm strength. If USC is going to focus more on the younger players over these final two weeks, which was the plan going in according to Helton, do Dart and Miller Moss get more of the spotlight now? It’s unnecessary for USC to name a solid No. 2 quarterback at the end of spring, but finishing on a positive note and starting to really cut down on some of the true freshmen mistakes could be huge for these two as they jockey for that spot.
Can USC avoid more injuries?
USC has suffered two season-ending injuries this spring, and while neither will cripple the team like if Slovis or Drake Jackson went down, both are significant. Safety Max Williams tore his ACL and will miss the year, dealing a blow to the USC secondary. On Saturday, Helton announced that defensive tackle Brandon Pili underwent successful surgery after he tore his achilles. That’s a sizable hole in the middle of the defensive line. There’s the unknown ability of Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher, who is out this spring after undergoing his own surgery for compartment syndrome. USC has gotten improved play from Jamar Sekona and an eye-opening effort from true freshman Jay Toia.
USC is going full contact as often as it can this spring, which should be a net positive come fall. But avoiding major injuries is always a goal for spring. So far, the two have been difficult to hear and definite setbacks for the defense. The hope is that the Trojans can keep up the intensity and escape spring with just the damage already done.
Is Pola-Mao the answer at nickel?
USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and safeties coach Craig Naivar might have an interesting decision to make at the three safety spots this fall. With Williams out and already missing Greg Johnson for the spring, the defensive coaches elected to send Isaiah Pola-Mao into that nickel spot, sliding Texas transfer Xavion Alford into Pola-Mao’s vacated free safety position. Pola-Mao has responded well there, at a position that gets him involved closer to the football and allows him to use his experience and football IQ.
Briton Allen has performed well at that spot as well, giving USC’s defensive coaches an issue many coaches appreciate having, set with too many qualified players for too few spots.
Will the freshmen drop off?
The performance of virtually every single early enrollee freshman this spring has been exemplary. All 10 of them have been responsible for at least a handful of positive plays this spring and it wouldn’t be surprising to see potentially all of them ready to contribute in several games this fall, potentially keeping their redshirt seasons in tact but still mentally and physically ready to see the field. Now it becomes a question of keeping that up as you get into the final two weeks, and with the Spring Game behind them. So far the intensity hasn’t wavered since the first day, and these two freshmen have been a bit part of that.
If Michael Jackson III continues playing the way he has, there’s a chance he comes out of spring ball as one of the top three or four options among the wide receivers coming into the fall. Toia has an opportunity to cement himself as a clear rotational player by the end of spring. And the safeties — Calen Bullock, Xamarion Gordon and Anthony Beavers — should have more and more opportunities to make statements.
It’s a long spring with plenty of opportunities for energy to dip or youth to show up in mistakes or misunderstandings. But so far, so good for this group.