In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles
Fired up: It was a good sign on Friday and Saturday’s opening two days of practice that the Men of Troy were excited and intense, trying to turn last season’s 5-7 record around in a big way. I’ll say this, if enthusiasm could translate into wins, the 2019 Trojans have gotten off to a very positive start. I agree with Clay Helton who said after the first practice that he was pleased, but you really don’t know until “the bullets begin to fly.” In other words, full pads aggression and defining scrimmages. In terms of Saturday afternoon’s practice session, I thought the defense was dominant when it came to 11-on-11, which produced a JT Daniels “Pick-6” by early training camp DB sensation Olaijah Griffin, who cut in front of true freshman Drake London for the PI.
Fired up – Part 2: If you were looking for a breakout moment in the quarterback competition the past two days, it wasn’t really there yet. Then again, many of the media believe that the starting spot is JT Daniels’ to lose. They may be right, but I’d like to think that it isn’t true until proven in the upcoming Trojans’ scrimmages. The simple truth is that you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out. If there are a couple of legit question marks regarding Daniels, it’s about his ability to not be affected and distracted by hits on his body by bloodthirsty defensive linemen and to also continue to grow as a leader.
Fired up – Part 3: It’s so early to make a QB evaluation because it’s like asking the rooster to crow before the sun begins to rise. However, if you saw a big difference in the first couple of practices, it’s that JT Daniels stays in the pocket and competitor Jack Sears has no problem running out of the pocket for positive gains. It is a clear distinction between the two talented signal callers. The biggest question is for OC Graham Harrell: “Do I want a QB that stays in the pocket or one that is more than happy to improvise?”
Natural progress: It’s pretty much an offensive given that as the O-line goes so will the consistency of the offense. One thing to consider is that with Graham Harrell’s offense, the quick release by the quarterback should – on its surface – allow less time for the weaknesses of the O-line to be exposed. The question isn’t how the O-line does against a Fresno State defense, but how will the quick release be tested by the defensive likes of a Washington or Notre Dame? If those defenses jam the Trojans’ elite receivers, it will be intriguing to see how that affects the Trojan’s quarterback who should be under a relentless rush.
Shouldering the defense: Nobody questions the potential of sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga, who has twice had a separated shoulder. Hufanga told the media after the first day that he is “feeling good.” When asked what he learned in the first practice, Talanoa was it was a positive that his unit came out with intensity and “bringing the juice on every play. I liked the attention to detail and our goal is to get the ball out (for a turnover).” It should also be noted that sophomore Isaiah Pola-Mao, who is also coming off shoulder surgery, also looked intimidating as the other safety next to Hufanga. If both can stay healthy, the Trojans have a very imposing group of safeties.
Looking to improve: When all-star sophomore defensive tackle Jay Tufele was asked how he want to up his game, the intimidating Tufele said, “I need to work on my pass rush and be aware of down and distance.” When asked about the D-line goals, Tufele said, “We just have to go and do our job.” Asked about the 2019 change in attitude as it pertains to his D-line teammates, Tufele said, “We all got together with Coach (Kauha’aha’a) and talked it over.”
It’s a snap: If you’re looking offensively for something really positive take away after just two practices, there was just one bad snap (Saturday) to disrupt the timing and execution of a play.
Just that simple: Junior running back Vavae Malepeai was rather concise regarding his goals to be as good as running back as he can be. Simply put, Vavae said he wanted to “break tackles, catch the ball, protect the quarterback and get it into the end zone.”
First thoughts: In terms of how the team looks after two days, it really is hard to project when there are no pads on, but they will in full combat uniforms by Wednesday. All four quarterbacks had their moments, and the inexperienced secondary had key some interceptions. Players are trying to make sure they line up correctly, the timing of quarterbacks to receivers had some high and some low moments, so in other words, it’s too early to tell.
The noble deed: In donating bone morrow to his ill sister, Autumn, junior offensive left tackle Austin Jackson said he was grateful to have been a match for his beloved sibling. He did, however, say that there are three holes in his lower back and that it was painful when he awoke from a three-hour-plus surgery. Austin said it was nothing compared to the amounts of tests his sister had to endure. The good news is that sis is recovery well and was released a month early in the recovery process. As for Austin, he continues to make progress while pacing himself during training camp.
Separation: One of the major keys to running Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense is the ability of wide receivers to get separation from defensive backs. Three of the better separators are senior Michael Pittman Jr. and sophomores Devon Williams and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Of all the talented receivers, Devon Williams is the most intriguing because of his height (6-4), weight (210), and gift ability to high-point the ball. He made a NFL Pro Bowl type of catch during a Saturday drill.
More Amon: One of OC Graham Harrell’s favorite pointers for the receivers is to “find the green,” which means whatever it takes to find the open area in the secondary. I asked St. Brown how a quarterback knows how to be on the same page, and the super sophomore made it sound like mental telepathy between he and his quarterback. Amon said, “It’s about repetitions (in practice).”
Bad luck department: So there was true freshman wide receiver John Jackson lll looking good again on the first day of practice until he caught a ball down the middle and sprinted into the end zone then pulling up lame and dropping to the ground with a hamstring pull. John, whose father John Jackson Jr. is recovering from a stroke, is the latest Jackson to now be challenged. Somehow, I think that there will be a happy ending to both Jackson as time evolves.
From the press box…
The quote: From Clay Helton in the media guide: “Each year brings a new team, with new hope and new challenges. We have identified and addressed the lessons we learned from last season. Now it’s time to move on to prepare this team for the 2019 season and the very demanding schedule we will face.” After two practices, this teams appears to have moved on, but let’s see what happens when they face true adversity. Then we’ll see if the Men of Troy can pull themselves off the mat to “fight on” again.
The quote – Part 2: More Clay Helton in the media guide: “I’m very excited for the 2019 season. We have something to prove. We know we have to live with last season until Game 1 kicks off. We have been working hard to move forward and to get rid of the bad taste of last season. I have been watching our team improve every day this off-season and I can’t wait for the Trojan Family to see the results of the hard work they are putting in.” We’ve heard Helton tell the Trojan Family prediction before what they can expect. Last season, Gentleman Clay told us in October that he couldn’t wait for the Trojans family to see his team in November, and then his team proceeded to go 1-3. We shall see what we shall see.
The quote – Part 3: More Clay Helton in the media guide regarding his offense: “Obviously, this is an exciting time for us offensively as we move to Graham Harrell’s new system. The system fits our current personnel well and allows us to use all our weapons, but there will be a learning process.” We are told the system fits the current Trojans’ personnel, which is what has been recruited. There is a hunch here that Graham Harrell will use all the weapons at his disposal, and the offense should be significantly more potent. However, it’s not like opponents will an Air Raid offense – even Harrell’s – for the first time. It will be all about execution of the offense.
The quote – Part 4: More Clay Helton in the media guide regarding his defense: “I’m excited to continue the system we’ve had in place here under Clancy Pendergast, although he has simplified it a bit this year. Our veterans have a great grasp of the system, which should give us a head start heading into the season as we bring along our newer players.” We’ll see how this plays out when the Trojans host Stanford on Sept. 8 in the Coliseum. The Trojans defense practices day after day against an Air Raid offense. How will they be ready to face a true NFL-style power run-pass game like the Stanford Cardinal after going against their own finesse Air Raid offense?
The quote – Part 5: More Clay Helton in the media guide regarding special teams: “Our special teams under John Baxter have always impacted games and we expect that to continue. We have some capable returners, we’re fortunate to return an experienced snapper and there will be strong competition at placekicker. And we’re excited to see our new punter in action.” Helton is spot-on when it comes to punting. Call me weird, but there is enjoyment watching Ben Griffiths punt a football.
In memory: I was informed recently that Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket is preparing a video piece tribute to late WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskweitz for its first high school game of the week this coming season.
Analyst question: If John “JJ” Jackson, who is recovering from a stroke, is unable to fulfill his analyst role on the 2019 USC football radio broadcasts, who will the university select to fill his rather large shoes? Don’t be surprised if it’s former Trojans’ All-America DT Shaun Cody, who has been a previous broadcast analyst during past USC pre and post-game shows.
That’s the ticket: When Trojan fans receive their season tickets, as per tradition, each home game ticket will feature a member of the 2019 team. Those Trojans honored by having their picture and name on a home game ticket include OT Austin Jackson (Fresno State), RB Vavae Malepeai (Stanford), ILB John Houston (Utah), DE Christian Rector (Arizona), WR Tyler Vaughns (Oregon), and WR Michael Pittman Jr. (UCLA).
The post-game show…
Recruiting pecking order: It’s no secret that the Trojans have the current perception of lagging in recruiting, especially when it comes to the customary four and five-star recruits. A great example of where the Trojans are in the eyes of the premier high school studs was the recent release of schools by inside linebacker Justin Flowe, who previously had been listed as 100% for the Trojans. Well, guess what? According to Flowe’s Twitter, the stud backer now says – in no particular order – it’s Clemson, Georgia, Miami, and Oregon in his Top 4.
Recruiting pecking order – Part 2: Clay Helton was asked about the current USC recruiting for 2020 and while he said he couldn’t comment by NCAA rules regarding specific players, he did admit – to his credit – that Trojans recruiting would be greatly enhanced if they got a lot of wins this season. Translation: Helton knows if the Trojans don’t win big, they will be hurt along the recruiting trail.
The uprising: I don’t think that I’ve seen the amount of unity from Trojan fans when it was made public that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was strongly considering some conference games this season kicking off at 9 am PDT.
Rope’em: Senior WR Michael Pittman Jr. rides horses in his spare time and wants to get into “tie-down” roping after his football days.
FYI: In case you didn’t really notice, the Trojans two conference “misses” in 2019 are Oregon State and Washington State, both being from the North Division.
The last word: Here’s the latest real time Coliseum renovation camera view: https://app.oxblue.com/open/usc/lacoliseumrenovation