19 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Scrimmage No. 1- Progress

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles

It’s a hit: Ya know, when you get right down to it, football will always be a game of violent blocking and destructive tackling. For the 2019 USC Trojans, Saturday’s first scrimmage of training camp presented itself as an early litmus test regarding the quarterback competition, the aggressiveness (AKA physical) and effectiveness of a questionable offensive line, the aggressiveness (AKA physical) and effectiveness of its defensive line, and a youthful secondary fraught with the combination of inexperience and depth of talent. After the conclusion of a scrimmage that lasted two hours and 100 plays, each of these areas could be judged either “making progress,” “the jury is still out,” and/or “here we go again.”  

Being offensive: Once again,there’s no doubt in my mind that offensively the Trojans have the skill players to match up with just about anybody in the country, and that receiver unit is just a beast when you add talented freshmen like Drake London and Munir McClain. Sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown is nearly unstoppable in this Air Raid offense, and he and his receiving teammates at times schooled the inexperienced secondary. The wide receiver depth is extremely deep and talented, and we haven’t even talked about Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns. The improvement of former NCAA Portal Transfer junior Velus Jones was remarkable on Saturday. If a system can change a player, then Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid fits Velus like a glove, and the Alabama native now appears to be a true deep threat.  

Being offensive – Part 2: The big elephant in the room is whether Tim Drevno’s offensive line can hold up their end of the bargain and allow Harrell’s offensive system and array of weapons to function consistently and lethally. In Saturday’s first scrimmage, the offensive line, depending on the defensive unit they were facing, was able to get short-yardage first downs, which is something we haven’t seen on a consistent basis in the past. Are they physical enough or aggressive enough for my liking? No, they aren’t. They didn’t really blow anybody off the defensive line consistently, but they were helped by a beast of a redshirt freshman running back named Markese Stepp, who when given a hole sure looks like former Trojan great LenDale White moving through it, and when not given a hole, Stepp moved the pile for some tough extra yards. Near the goal line, Stepp was an unstoppable freight train.

Get used to No. 30, freshman Markese Stepp (photo above), who some experts say can be better than LenDale White, the former Trojans’ great tailback.

Junior running back Stephen Carr looks more like his exciting freshman season although he really only broke one long run. Carr’s shorter runs where he made something out of nothing showed Stephen is regaining past form. Junior walk-on Quincy Jountti ran like a scholarship running back and showed no fear attacking between the tackles.

Being offensive – Part 3: Now for the big downer, the offensive line repeatedly was flagged for procedure calls, and their discipline should be called into question. We’ll see if this first scrimmage excitement issue justifies the continuation of a disastrous 2018 seasonal discipline issue. However, there is better talent across the line with at least three new starters. We’ll give this group a pass and figure to see improvement in Scrimmage No. 2 next Saturday in the Coliseum.

Being offensive – Part 4: I know, I know, come on Katz, let’s get to the quarterbacks! Okay, my friends, all the quarterbacks had their moments…BUT…it’s safe to say that true freshman Kedon Slovis while showing glimpses of his standout spring practice performances seemed to get caught up in the speed of the game and missed on some passes and threw some interceptions. Kedon wasn’t expected to realistically be a contender for a starting position in 2019, and it showed. His best days are down the road. Next up was former junior NCAA Portal Transfer Matt Fink. I thought Matt really looked the best I’ve seen him in a scrimmage. His passing continues to improve by leaps and bounds, and he remains the same dangerous threat running out of the pocket as we have seen in the past. Had Matt not gone the “Portal” route, he might be in a stronger depth chart position than he is today.

Being offensive – Part 5: Continuing with the quarterbacks, we have sophomore Jack Sears. Competitive Jack did nothing to change my mind that he is right there with JT Daniels for the starting position if not the eventual starter at some point. Jack had a good passing day, ran out of the pocket for big gains not because he wanted to run, but because nobody was open. Of the four quarterbacks, Sears, IMHO, is the most dangerous to defend. Sears is a “gamer” and showed visible leadership running the offense.

Sophomore Jack Sears (photo above) continues to be the Trojans’ most dangerous quarterback with the ball in his hands

Finally, we get to returning starter JT Daniels. JT had a good day and even scrambled out of the pocket for a nice gain. There were times when he stayed in the pocket too long and would have been pulverized, but he was wearing a yellow quarterback shirt, so not touchie. If the offensive line allows him to stay in the pocket, he is at his most effective. It should also be noted that OC Graham Harrell showed that he will throw to his tight ends as illustrated by catches by true freshman Jude Wolfe and junior Erik Krommenhoek. The tight ends back in the offense? Welcome back, TEs. IMHO, the offense looked a lot like Washington State, but how much the Trojans run the ball will be in the hands of OC Graham Harrell’s play calling.

Trojan fans should be excited to see the tight ends like true freshman Jude Wolfe (photo above) as part of the new offense.

Being defensive: If Clay Helton wasn’t under such an intense microscope as the nation’s most hot-seated coach, Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast might rank right behind the head coach in the eyes of the USC fan base. For Pendergast, it may come down to proving his unit can stop the run, and the talented but young secondary not self-destructing (AKA blown coverages and missed tackles), especially in the early going of a difficult first 6-game stretch. There’s plenty of defensive downline talent, and Saturday showed a defensive front 7 that was very aggressive and at times physical. Their lateral pursuit and attack angles were mostly disciplined, a sign of good coaching.

Being defensive – Part 2: The D-line was hampered by the fact they were not allowed to sack the quarterback, but they showed that they flow to the ball as a unit. The front 7 was especially tough against the Trojans’ run game, which may not mean a whole lot at the moment. The question is whether this D-line can really hold their own against a true smashmouth offensive line (think Stanford, Utah, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon)? Unfortunately, this D-line won’t get that physical look at the moment with the developing USC O-line. Now, if you’re looking for some surprises along the D-line, I thought redshirt junior Caleb Tremblay finally looked like the heralded JC transfer he was when he got to Troy out of American River CC. D-line coach Kauha’aha’a isn’t kidding when he said this past week his D-line is almost three deep in talent.  

Junior defensive lineman Caleb Tremblay (photo above) is now healthy and made his presence felt during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Being defensive – Part 3: The linebackers that stood out to me were sophomore Palaie Gaoteote IV (shocking, I know) and true freshman Ralen Goforth who plays way beyond his years. Ralen could make a real push for a starting inside spot down the line. It seemed like No. 19 was always around the action. The big question for me regarding Goforth is how in the world did UCLA let him get away considering his brother, Randall, was a starter for the Bruins?

Being defensive – Part 4: My gut feeling at this moment with the secondary is that in time this group will be highly functional. It is not a question of talent; it is a question of inexperience and depth. At times the negatives really showed, but at times there was a positive light at the end of the tunnel. Freshmen corners Chris Steele and Olaijah Griffin are really talented. I liked that when they got beat or knocked down, they got right back up and competed again. There was no quit in either youngster.

Having recovered from shoulder surgeries, sophomore Olaijah Griffin (photo above) has really impressed the coaching staff and had a productive scrimmage on Saturday.

Being special: As for the Trojans’ special teams, training camp doesn’t really allow for much insight, but for those absolutely intrigued by a mid-to-late-20s Australian punter named Ben Griffiths, the intrigue will be worth the wait. IMHO, Ben could play a huge factor in some of the Trojans’ biggest games. On Saturday, Griffiths had the assortment of pitches, ur kicks, of a No. 1 starter in the major leagues. In field goal attempts, it certainly looks like the Chase McGrath we knew as a freshman before he blew out his knee is rounding back into placekicking shape, a good sign.

Better get corrected: Of all the areas that I found the most headshaking was again the lack of discipline not only during plays, but unsportsmanlike penalties after plays. It was only a few plays into the scrimmage when both WR Amon-Ra St. Brown and Chris Steele started grabbing and pushing each other’s facemasks. It showed that once the emotions start entering into a game or scrimmage, Clay Helton, who said he would be in charge of team discipline, still has a ways to go to change the undisciplined departments of his team.    

Clay Helton (photo above in center) has said that he will take full responsibility for his team’s penalty issues in 2018 and will get them straightened out for 2019. However, penalties were again a factor in Saturday’s 2019 first training camp scrimmage.

Regarding the inexperienced secondary: First-year secondary coach Greg Burns says, “Right now they (the secondary) are doing well and improving every day, but they’re still in a situation where their consistency is not there. Some days you praise a player and the next day you don’t. So, is he a good player or a bad player? It’s too early to make that decision. It is, however, in an upward direction.” During the scrimmage, the secondary appeared to be make good on Burn’s appraisal of his unit. There were some good plays and so not so good plays, which will need to be corrected.

Helpful grad: One of the understated new coaches on staff is former Trojans’ DB Chris Hawkins, now a grad secondary coach assistant. Chris’s work has not gone unnoticed by some members of the young secondary. Says sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, “He’s very smart and just an intelligent football player. He’s been putting me on-game in everything, and I can learn from his game, so hopefully it’s an advantage.”

Secondary coaches Greg Burns (photo above on left) and grad assistant Chris Hawkins (photo above on right) have worked hard in teaching and training the Trojans’ young secondary. Hawkins has been pointed out by current young secondary members for his attention to detail and encouragement.

Clones: On playing next to fellow sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga, Isaiah Pola-Mao says, “We just like we’re on the same page. It’s like we’re interchangeable. It’s very easy and fun playing with him.”

From the press box…

Sign of the times: Sports Illustrated came out this week with its 2019 College Football Preview, and SI does not rank the Men of Troy in its top 25. However, the Trojans will face five teams in the preseason SI top 25: Notre Dame (No. 7), Oregon (No. 9), Washington (No. 12), Utah (No. 14), and Stanford (No. 25). The Irish and Huskies will be on the road.

Great news: According to LA Times sports media columnist Tom Hoffarth, John Jackson Jr., who is recovering from a severe stroke, has progressed well enough to have a limited role in the 2019 radio broadcasts of USC football games (KABC-AM 790). JJ’s prime spot as analyst will be temporarily filled by former Trojans All-America defensive lineman Shaun Cody, who has been part of the radio package in recent seasons and will also continue on the pre and post-game shows. According to Hoffarth through a USC official, “JJ” has been told his analyst job will be his when he is ready to return.

Trojans’ football broadcast analyst John Jackson (photo above), who suffered a life-threatening stroke last winter, is set to return to the USC broadcast booth this coming season in some capacity.

Great news – Part 2: One of the prime motivators for John Jackson Jr. to return to the broadcast booth is to watch his son, Trojans’ freshman wide receiver John Jackson lll, run out of the Coliseum tunnel before the Fresno State game. Jackson lll, who figures to be part of the receiving rotation, has been held out of recent practices and Saturday’s scrimmage due to a hamstring pull.  

The QB returns:
Former Trojans quarterback Max Browne will be part of the new Trojans’ pre and post-game radio coverage. Always a class act, Max has successfully transitioned from the football field into the world of electronic and social media.

Former Trojans’ quarterback Max Browne (photo above) has turned in his football career for a career in sportscasting and will be part of the USC football pregame and post-game radio shows this season.

Naming rights: Already in place in the renovation of the Coliseum is new visible signage, which includes the Otis Booth Press Box and United Airlines Field. The Otis Booth Press Box signage is above the press box on the sixth floor, and the United Airlines Field signage is on top of the 7th floor between the light standards that overlook the field.

Naming rights – Part 2: As part of the agreement, the Harbor Freeway sign for the Coliseum has added “United Airlines Field.”

Ribbon board: In a promotional video for the Trojans big Aug. 17 open-to-the-public scrimmage in the Coliseum, head coach Clay Helton is encouraging fans to attend while standing in front the new Scholarship Tower and press box. During the video presentation, there were two levels of electronic ribbon messaging boards operating, the length of the tower, which included advertising and in-game statistics.

The post-game show…

Bowl projection: CBS.com bowl projector Jerry Palm says that when it’s all said and regular season done, the Trojans will play Florida State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Dec. 31.

Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com predicts the Trojans will play Florida State in the 2019 Sun Bowl (photo above)in El Paso, Texas.

The appearance: Former Trojans All-America linebacker Jack Del Rio was on campus this week to watch practice. It’s no secret that Jack would love to coach the Trojans if there was an opening. Hmmm.

Happy Birthdays: For a USC football player, could there be anything better than celebrating your birthday on a game day? Trojan football players celebrating a birthday on a game day in 2019 include ILB Jordan Iosefa (Sept. 20/Utah), RB Quincy Jountti (Sept. 28/at Washington), CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart (Oct. 25/ at Colorado), and ILB Ralen Goforth (Nov. 2/Oregon).

True freshman inside linebacker Ralen Goforth (photo above – No. 19) will celebrate his birthday when the Trojans host the Oregon Ducks on Nov. 2.

The speaker: Trojans legendary safety/corner Ronnie Lott will be a guest speaker along with former BYU QB great Steve Young as part of a seminar at Stanford on Friday, Aug. 16. Ronnie and Steve will speak as part of a panel at the 3rd Annual William V. Campbell Trophy Summit, sponsored by Intuit, which is designed to expose 214 past nominees for the Campbell Trophy to a wide range of topics that will foster their business careers, including entrepreneurship, finance, venture capital and the lifelong lessons of the gridiron that can be applied in the business world. The nominees were selected during their college days as the best all-around student-athletes on their respective teams.

The speaker – Part 2: Former Trojans’ All-America safety Taylor Mays was at Thursday’s practice and told WeAreSC staffers that he is looking to pursue a career in sportscasting.  

Battle of the airlines: It’s common knowledge that United Airlines has gotten a piece of the Coliseum renovation action by getting the naming rights to the field: United Airlines Field. Not to be out done, American Airlines has gotten into the act – sort of. The Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, new home to the Rams and Chargers, doesn’t have a naming rights deal yet, but its plaza, formerly known as Champions Plaza, will now be known as American Airlines Plaza. Will the fans of both facilities now have their choice of baby pretzels and a soft drink?

United Airlines has bought the naming rights to the Coliseum field, calling it “United Airlines Field.”

The last word: With the big “ Fall Showcase” scrimmage coming up next Saturday, Aug. 17, in the Coliseum and the goal posts now up, here’s the latest real time Coli renovation camera view: https://app.oxblue.com/open/usc/lacoliseumrenovation

Here is Saturday night’s real time photo of the Coliseum (photo above), which has almost completed it renovation. Those bright lights shining on the upper right of the photo are coming from the Scholarship Tower suites and press box.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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