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IMHO Sunday: Scrimmage No. 2- Status quo or beauty is in the eyes of the beholder

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

Decisions: The USC Trojans Fall Showcase –Scrimmage No. 2 coinciding with tours of the Scholarship Tower at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – may or may not have lived up to your expectations. If you were highly anticipating a full-scale tour of the magnificent Scholarship Tower, it didn’t happen. Because certain building permits had not been met, the public tours were cancelled, although it appeared that those that bought the suites were able to use them and enjoy them. As for the football team, it was status quo, as the team looked much like it did in Scrimmage No. 1 with a slight reduction in penalties. In other words, this team better get a whole lot better in the next 13 days, as it should, or…   

The offense: For those that came in person to watch the Fall Showcase, did you like the offense you saw? Some of you will say it’s the Washington State offense with more dynamic skill players – which I totally agree – and some will say it’s the Sonny Dykes old Cal passing offense, which I could also buy into. Pick your poison, folks. Well, the perspective here on the offense was that it looked the same as it did in Scrimmage No. 1, which is not a sign of marked progress. Oh sure, there were some individual improvements like the pass catching of true freshman John Jackson lll, who is a wonderful possession receiver who just doesn’t drop the ball. I would like to be more upbeat and positive, but the reality is that maybe the team improvements on offense will probably come when Clay Helton and OC Graham Harrell finally name a starting quarterback. By the way, the only coach on the actual playing field was Clay Helton, who stood behind his quarterback with headsets on. Afterward, Helton had high praise for all his quarterbacks and their efficiency. The coach said he was blessed to have four quarterbacks that could start for a lot of college teams.       

The offense – Part 2: The quarterback competition was pretty much a repeat of Scrimmage No.1, and that’s not a bad thing. All four quarterbacks – JT Daniels (cover photo) , Jack Sears, Matt Fink, and Kedon Slovis – combined for zero turnovers on Saturday, a super positive. JT was mostly accurate and efficient, Jack was Jack in being mobile outside the pocket while hitting on some nice downfield passes, Matt continued to show an upward trend in leading his offense, and Kedon was again smooth beyond his years and exhibited a high football IQ. However, keep in mind they all faced different defensive unit mixes and weren’t allowed to be sacked. The intrigue is what would any of the four do facing an opponent’s No. 1 defense for four quarters and getting whacked around along the way? It won’t shock me that whomever is selected as quarterback to start the season, won’t be the quarterback by the middle of the season. It could be a fluid situation.

For the good of the offense and the team, Helton and Harrell need to move quickly – how about by this Tuesday’s practice – in naming a quarterback who will get the most of the remaining reps leading up to Fresno State. No doubt, there are going to be some hurt quarterback feelings when the depth chart shoe drops. When a quarterback depth chart is released, you can bet that Helton and Harrell will be intensely scrutinized regarding the pecking order behind the named starter. None of the quarterbacks up to now has really separated themselves – despite their different styles – from the others.   

It appears time for Clay Helton and OC Graham Harrell (photo above) to finally name a starting quarterback for the opener against Fresno State.

The offense – Part 3: The wide receivers and running backs. First, the wide receivers. They’re all performing at mostly an elite level, but then again, the secondary they are facing has some major issues of experience and fundamentals and it shows. However, it’s easy to name some of the receivers that had good games on Saturday and still leave out names that also had a good scrimmage. In fairness, Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and especially Devon Williams were outstanding. But then again, so was Velus Jones, who continues to thrive in this new offensive system and we’ve already mention John Jackson. As a side thought, even tight ends Erick Krommenhoek and Jude Wolfe had some receptions, and you thought the tight ends had gone by way of the buffalo?

The running backs – minus the injured Vavae Malepeai (knee) – had no chance to find daylight. They were often tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. There was basically nothing for Stephen Carr or Markese Stepp, although in short yardage near the goal line, Stepp literally willed his way into the end zone by knocking his O-linemen forward into the D-line. Unfortunately, we have yet to see the heralded speed of heralded true freshman running back Kenan Christon, who has had trouble – like the other veteran backs – finding a crease in the D-line. One thing we have learned is that Christon is no pansy when running between the tackles.    

The offense – Part 4: The offensive line protected the quarterbacks fairly well in pass-pro, but the run blocking was – for the most part – non-existent to be kind. Okay, it was bad. There was way too much penetration by the defense and the running backs had no chance to get started. Given that the running plays or attack are still a work in progress, even Clay Helton had to admit afterward that his O-line has the most to improve and he said they would. IMHO, they’d better or both the quarterbacks and the running backs will turn into cardinal and gold pinatas. In defense of the O-line, they do work hard in practice, are coachable, and have great attitudes, so here’s hoping they can improve as the season progresses. In assessing the work of his offensive line, Helton said, “It was just okay, a work in progress.” Helton also predicted the O-line will be the most improved area of the team in time.

The Trojans’ offensive line (photo above) has been challenged rushing the football, but naming a starting quarterback could help in their improvement.

The defensive:
Overall, I thought the defense again was dominant along the front seven. The down four spearheaded by Jay Tufele was physical and highly motivated and would have had a number of sacks had the quarterbacks been allowed to be tackled. In terms of rush defense, they controlled the line of scrimmage, but given the offensive line’s struggle to block somebody and be physical, we really don’t know how good these guys really are. One can’t judge by facing the Trojans’ offensive line at the moment.

The defense – Part 2: As aforementioned, you really can’t get a true marker on this unit because who they are facing along the O-line. However, the D-line gives effort, are physical, and have growing depth in numbers. One player slowly making some individual progress is junior Connor Murphy, who seems to finally be coming into his own. Christian Rector was a force, and Caleb Tremblay continues to make progress in being part of the D-line mix. And let’s not forget true freshman Drake Jackson, who had a fine Saturday scrimmage – again.  

Christian Rector (photo above) made his presence felt during Saturday’s scrimmage in the renovated Coliseum.

The defense – Part 3: As for the linebackers, sophomore starting inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV is rapidly becoming a consistent force. He made some big hits on Saturday. We all know the expectations for Palaie, and he looks like this is his time – a true all-star candidate. The kids a real talent. The other linebackers were able to get to the point of attack on running plays and slide down the line of scrimmage to prevent any running back from heading up field. 

The defense – Part 4: Once again, the secondary looked like it has a long way to go, as they were constantly being beaten or flagged for pass interference calls. Despite the early appraisal, the secondary has talent, but its inexperience combined with the Trojans’ elite receivers have given them fits. If they aren’t being beaten deep, they get burned by receivers adjusting to the depth and height of the ball. And remember, this secondary has not faced a true balanced offense, which is currently not the Trojans’ offense forte’ in practice.

Special teams: For what we’ve seen thus far, the special teams continue to look special with gifted punter Ben Griffiths and placekicker Chase McGrath. Griffiths wowed fans with a 72-yard punt, and McGrath was dynamite in long field goal attempts. As this Trojans team matures, it looks like right out of the gate they’ll have some gamechangers.

Punter Ben Griffiths (photo above) made believers of fans at the Fall Showcase on Saturday with some booming punts.

The bottom line: Afterward, Helton called the scrimmage “a good day.” I’d sure love to say that’s what I saw on and was a major step up from the first scrimmage, but that would not be the case. The offense line is a major work in progress and so is the secondary. The rest of the team has shown signs of having good to above average units. As for penalties, the Trojans recorded nine flags, a slight decrease from Scrimmage 1.  With two weeks remaining until the opener against Fresno State, the Trojans will really need to dramatically step up their game and finally name a starting quarterback. The concerns before the season, IMHO, hasn’t changed – new offensive system or not.  

From the press box…

Meanwhile in Fresno: The Fresno State football team held its second scrimmage of its fall training camp on Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium. It was the 14th practice of 25 as the ‘Dogs prepare for its Aug. 31 opener in two weeks against the Trojans.
The Bulldogs started their scrimmage just past 7 p.m. and were on the field approximately two-and-a-half hours, but practice was much longer than that. Mimicking a game day, preparing newcomers and reminding the veterans of what takes place on a game day leading up to kick off.
“All the little things was today,” said head coach Jeff Tedford. “We did that all day today. From breakfast this morning, to the pregame meal. It really was just a rehearsal of what goes on, on game day.”
Once on the field, alike at the first scrimmage last Saturday, a large portion of time was given to the newcomers.
“We’re such a young team with 40 new guys right now,” said Tedford. “We needed to see what they could do; a lot of time has been put in on that. Now we’ll get a good evaluation of them and whittle it down.”

Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford (photo above) will lead his defending MWC champion Bulldogs into the Coliseum for the season opener for both teams on Saturday night, Aug. 31, in a nationally televised (ESPN) game.

The salute: Before Saturday’s Trojans scrimmage, athletic director Lynn Swann gave a video salute to past team from 1969, 1994, and 2009. Among the 1969 team members in attendance and introduced were Dave Brown, Allan Graf, Sandy Durko, Marv Montgomery, Bruce Dyer, Greg George, and Mike Fielder. Among the 1994 team members introduced were Jesse Gomez and Jeremy Hogue while some of the members of the 2009 team included Chris Galippo, Khaled Holmes, Taylor Mays, Mitch Mustain, Kris O’Dowd, Abe Markowitz, and Christian Tupou. There were others from those teams in attendance, as well.

Say what: The Trojans broke from the autograph tradition of signing after a scrimmage and had their players signing before the scrimmage in the peristyle end. Standing near them, the autograph session didn’t seem to be a problem of distraction, and the team seemed to be enjoying the signings and interaction with the fans. More importantly, it didn’t seem to be a problem latter with the scrimmage.

Members of the Trojans team held a fan autographs session in the peristyle end of the Coli prior to Scrimmage No. 2, and many fans were there to get items signed by their heroes.

Room service: After the scrimmage, Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton came up to the press box from the field for some post-game comments. Usually, it’s the media that goes down on the field. Hey, if the coach wants to come upstairs (Helton admitted he was gassed running up the stairs from the field), you won’t find many media guys who missed walking down all those flights of stairs down to the field and then back up again. In fact, maybe we could try that during the season and have some selected players joining the coach (tongue in cheek of course).  

The renovation: Many of the fans elected to sit in the “obstructed view” seats or behind the closed end zone to be in the shade. The fans I saw seem content to sit in the shade. And many seemed very excited near the end of the scrimmage to be allowed to go to their new seats they had selected for 2019 after being displaced.

A large number of Trojan fans (photo above) elected to find seats in the shade, some in or near the obstructed view area because of the heat.

The press box:
For those of us in the media, we had the opportunity to take a special VIP tour of the Tower and the Otis Booth Press Box last early Thursday morning. The press vantage points have changed from 30-to-30-yard line to the closed end of the Coliseum goal line to the 40-yard line. It’s the latest trend in new press boxes of moving the media to one side of the field. In terms of writing space, honestly, it’s acceptable, but there is very little isle room to walk to your seat. A nice touch was that behind every seat is a small cubby hole to place bags and coats. The viewing windows are a major improvement to watch a game, and these windows do open up. And the view of downtown LA is spectacular, and the Hollywood sign is clearly recognizable.   

The suites: Having seen the VIP suites, they are everything you’d expect for the chunk of money you have to plop down to have one. There are posh chairs, couches, an HD TV screen, and, of course, your seats outside the suit face the field. The vantage point to watch a game is as good as it gets, which it should be.

If you’ve got the cash, there is nothing like leasing one of the Scholarship Tower suites (photo above) with all its bells and whistles

The lobbies: To get to the suite levels, you have designated elevators. The media will use the old elevators. Rumors are that former AD Pat Haden insisted that those that purchase a suite would not have to wait in line with the media to get to their level. On any of the VIP levels, there are large spacious areas to mingle and kickback and as a nice touch there are historic photos of famous USC All-America players and games everywhere. Naturally, cardinal and gold is everywhere, as it should be. Credit to the designers and builders that they were to bring to life the artist renderings in a big way.

Still the icon: Part of arriving early at the Coliseum on Saturday was to get a family photo with the Trojans’ famous mascot Traveler

There is nothing quite like a picture memory of the family taking a picture of Traveler (photo above), the Trojans’ nationally known mascot, which was available before Saturday’s Fall Showcase scrimmage.


The parking:
Don’t know where you parked, but during the season the media will now park in an underground parking structure next to the new – under construction – George Lucas museum. It’s a major improvement from having to park at the Flower and Figueroa structure, and then make the long walk to the Coli carrying a heavy computer and media cases. It will be nice not having to wait at 1:30 a.m. in the morning for a campus cart to take us through Exposition Park back to the Flower/Figueroa parking structure, as well.

More Pac-12 renovation:
Arizona State’s five-year renovation of Sun Devil Stadium has been completed. The east side of Sun Devils Stadium was reconstructed in 2018, but finishing work remained on club space and other areas were essential in ASU’s plans for the stadium’s year-round. ASU fans will now have a 12,000-square-foot club area on the east side 300 level, which is now fully enclosed and air conditioned; a 5,000-square-foot beer garden area. The Trojans play at ASU on Nov. 9.

The post-game show…

In appreciation: On returning to the Coliseum, former Florida transfer and Trojans’ true freshman DB Chris Steele, originally from Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, tweeted, “I got butterflies when I walked in the Coliseum…I thank God every day for bringing me back home (heart emoji).”

Sometimes things happen for a reason, and true freshman DB Chris Steele (photo above – No. 8) believes there was divine intervention is his transfer from the University of Florida back to Los Angeles and USC.

The guffaw: During Thursday’s ribbon cutting Coliseum renovation ceremony in front of the peristyle end, Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann knew that this was a major display of his presence in front of new USC president Carol Folt. Addressing the large turnout of politicians and civic leaders, Swannie reminded everybody about the Trojans’ first game against San Jose State. Say what? The Trojans are opening against Fresno State and the Trojans’ former All-America wide receiver quickly made the correction.

The guffaw – Part: In the same ceremony speech, Lynn Swann forgot to address a number of contributors to the project and had to be reminded by another athletic official to make the much-needed corrections, which he did. I am sure President Folk wasn’t paying attention to those two miscues….Right!!!

Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann (photo above) had a couple of miscues at the podium during Thursday’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the completion of the Coliseum renovation. The former All-America USC wide receiver said that the Trojans open with San Jose State and then forgot to mention some of the contributing donors to the Coliseum project. Hey, it could happen to anybody, so the AD rolled with the punches.

Just the facts: In a 17-minute interview recently on the Dan Patrick Show, Lynn Swann was a guest and was asked why USC is in the football predicament that it’s in, now being considered an underdog. As one of the reasons the Trojans went 5-7 last season and are not highly thought of in 2019, Swann pointed to recruiting. Not so fast, my friend. To be accurate, in the last three years, the Trojans have had one class nationally in the top 5, another class in the top 10, and one class in the top 20. That’s hardly a reason to debate that talent is a major issue, although you could argue that recruiting offensive linemen has been a major disappointment.   

Trivia: What does Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann and New Patriots quarterback Tom Brady have in common? They both attended San Mateo (Calif.) Serra Catholic High School, which is also the former prep home of former Trojans’ Hall of Fame head football coach John Robinson.

Former USC Hall of Fame football coach John Robinson (photo above), now at LSU, attended the same high school, San Mateo (Calif.) Serra as USC AD Lynn Swann and New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady.

TV is the way to go: In the official press release on the many bells and whistles of the renovated Coliseum, it was noted that more than 600 television screens have been located throughout the Coliseum’s public areas, and they will show not only the stadium’s current game but games throughout the country.

How do you do: Trojans’ radio play-by-play voice Pete Arbogast will be pleased to hear that his golden throat will now be heard in both concession and restroom areas and throughout the Scholarship Tower. “How do you do!”

The golden throat of USC radio play-by-play voice, Pete Arbogast, (photo above in Hawaiian shirt) can now be heard throughout the various levels of the Scholarship Tower and the outer concourse of the Coliseum.

The last word: With “Fall Showcase” scrimmage now history, all that is left are some minor touches in preparation for both the Trojans and Rams games. Here’s the latest real time Coli renovation camera view: https://app.oxblue.com/open/usc/lacoliseumrenovation

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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