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IMHO Sunday: Spring ball revelations and observations

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.

The truth: If you’re looking for some dynamic epiphany or revelation after three USC Trojans spring practice sessions, it’s a little early to form any definite conclusions. For the most part, the first three practices were sort of one big reorientation to Clay Helton (photo above) and staff’s football philosophy, schemes, fundamentals, and team building. However, there were some interesting notes picked up along the way this week, as it pertains to initial starters, injuries, rehabs, and medical retirements. The biggest observation from Saturday morning’s practice was that the team was in full pads, and there was some light contact to make things interesting.

The truth – Part 2: Of interest this week was the initial offensive line alignment, which put junior Chuma Edoga at left tackle and sophomore Roy Hemsley at right tackle. This, of course, is all subject change when senior Toa Lobendahn returns to actively participate in training camp in August. As a broadcasting note, here’s hoping you were able to listen to the WeAreSC podcast with his eminence Garry P., the incomparable Johnny Curren, and your humble correspondent. We go over the O-line situation as it stands after Week 1. http://www.wearesc.com/2017/03/11/podcast-talking-offensive-line/

The truth – Part 3: Unfortunately, a good number of players are on the mend or out (i.e. OL Toa Lobendahn (knee),NT Kenny Bigelow (knee), OLB Porter Gustin (hand) and WR/DB Travon Sidney (hips). However, there’s still enough activity by the healthy to see the possibilities for success in 2017. There are certainly enough healthy bodies for the skill positions on both sides of the ball, and there have been some impressive plays on both sides of the ball.

The truth – Part 4: One player to watch when the team returns from next week’s spring vacation will be sophomore corner Jack Jones, who will start seeing limited play on offense in additional to his cornerback duties on defense. Jackie loves the challenge, and there is no lack of confidence in his game. Last season, like most freshman, J.J. had his ups and downs and knows there is work to be done. Is he the next Adoree’ Jackson? Really, how many Adoree’ Jackson types are out there?

Pleasant surprises: Albeit it’s very early into spring ball, I would say from this vantage point some of the more pleasant surprises thus far have been the play of backup quarterback Matt Fink and wide receiver Velus Jones. And right there with them, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it a major surprise, is the early play of true freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu. After Saturday’s practice, Clay Helton praised Tuipulotu and said Marlon didn’t look like a freshman or play like a freshman.

The big man: So, let me tell you one thing, true freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu is all man. Big biceps, large calves, expansive torso, there is nothing freshman looking about No. 51. Walking off the field after practice this week, you would hardly know a physical age difference when he departed alongside senior Kenny Bigelow, another impressive physical specimen.

Tightening up: One player on Saturday that turned some heads was junior tight end Tyler Petite, who had a circus reception. The knock on Petite thus far has been his consistency in catching the ball, but that catch demonstrated Tyler’s determination to shed that stigma.

Learning curve: Although you can see the talent, true freshman quarterback Jack Sears is learning that being state champs in high school is a lot different than quarterbacking a Division 1 college football offense, especially one at the highest level. You can tell that Jack is trying to swim through it all. He’ll eventually get it, but it’s a real eye-opener and will take some patience.

IMHO: Clay Helton has talked about how things might change when injured offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn returns for August training camp, specifically Toa and returning starting center Nico Falah competing for the position. Helton says whomever wins the competition will probably move to guard. Well, it says here that it would be a major surprise if current starting center Nico Falah is eventually moved to guard to make room for Toa at center. It says here that Toa will start next season but at either guard or tackle, and Falah has already proven himself at center along with that valuable experience and confidence to remain there. The old saying, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” applies here.

Experienced: Standout junior linebacker Cameron Smith said this week he would be honored to assume the role of a team leader for 2017. It’s not like Smith doesn’t have previous “captain” experience. Cam informed me this week that he was a two-time captain of his high school team at Granite Bay.

Experienced – Part 2: Cameron Smith also told me that the one player who he respected the most as a team leader during his time at Troy is former all-star offensive lineman Max Tuerk. Cam said that Tuerk is the ultimate football player and even referred to Max as “a bad ass” in a positive way.

Backer praise: While Sam Darnold will get the well-deserved attention on offense, Clay Helton believes the Trojans have someone special on defense, as well. In commenting on second-team All-Pac-12 and junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith, Helton says, “We are very fortunate to return a veteran like Cameron. He is as good as they get.”

Sam speaks: After Tuesday’s practice, quarterback Sam Darnold made it clear that every receiver has a chance to catch the pigskin, and you know that it’s a real incentive for the ball catchers to be ready when spotted open. Even Rose Bowl hero wide receiver Deontay Burnett downplayed any thoughts that he could be “the guy.” Deontay made sure to basically echo Sam’s comments and said the goal to win a national championship supersedes any individual glory.

Good luck: You may have already heard by now, senior safety John Plattenburg has elected to medically retire from football due to health concerns (concussions). In our dealings with John, he was very bright, well-spoken, and no question he has a bright future away from football. “Platt” is an international relations major at Troy, and it wouldn’t shock us if he found his way into the diplomatic field. We wish him the best of luck.

Taps City: It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to solve the probable future of “former” Trojans placekicker Matt Boermeester, the Rose Bowl hero who has been out with a “code of conduct” issue. With Friday’s announcement that Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei senior kicker Chase McGrath will be entering Troy next fall, the writing appears to be on the wall for Boermeester, who is probably departing with him the type of experience that would have been an extra weapon in the Trojans drive for a 2017 Pac-12 title and a run at the College Football Playoffs.

Tap City – Part 2: It sure doesn’t hurt that incoming kicker Chase McGrath is coming from a bigtime program like Mater Dei and has fought the wars in the powerful Trinity League, one of the nation’s finest prep leagues. And it also doesn’t hurt that Mater Dei continues to be a major Trojans recruiting pipeline. One of the lessons learned over decades is you rarely see a Mater Dei Monarch come to USC and not contribute in a winning way.

Stat freaks: For those that love stats, placekicker Chase McGrath is an All CIF-SS first team kicker, executed 106 kickoffs last year with 84 touchbacks, was 90 of 93 PAT’s, and was 3 of 5 in field goal attempts (long of 51).

From the press box…

IMHO: If there was an early betting line for 2017 USC captains, you’d have to strongly consider QB Sam Darnold, ILB Cameron Smith, and safety Chris Hawkins. A fourth captain could be either OL Toa Lobendahn or corner Iman Marshall. Lobendahn might get the nod because of the balance of offensive and defensive players.

Cover boys: On the front cover of the USC Spring Media Guide is head coach Clay Helton (holding the winning Rose Bowl trophy), quarterback Sam Darnold, tailback Ronald Jones ll, linebacker Cameron Smith, and corner Iman Marshall.

Area of intrigue: With the loss of corner Adoree’ Jackson and safety Leon McQuay, Clay Helton is intrigued by the competition to replace both players and the development of the secondary in general. Helton says, “We’re lucky to have Iman (Marshall), Chris (Hawkins) and Marvell (Tell lll) back and anchoring our secondary, along with Ajene (Harris) and Jonathan (Lockett). But it will be challenging to replace the dynamic playmaking ability that Adoree’ had. The competition will be intense to do that, and I’m anxious to see how it plays out among our returnees and our signees.”

FYI: Thought you might like to know that new running backs coach Deland McCullough is also the Trojans new run game coordinator.

The hyperbole: Regarding Sam Darnold, FOX broadcaster Colin Cowherd says, “I think he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen at USC.”

The hyperbole – Part 2: In his zeal over Sam Darnold, is it possible that Cowherd has forgotten the likes of Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer?

IMHO: Sam Darnold might someday get into the “legendary” conversation, but after just one fabulous season, I am quite not ready to put Darnold at the Leinart and Palmer level just yet.

Is what it is: After losing the quarterback job to Sam Darnold, former Trojans QB Max Browne, now at Pittsburgh, told ESPN.com, “A lot of frustration, confusion, disappointment.” I don’t mean to be negative, but I also don’t want to be fake. That situation (USC) was not the easiest one on me, but I was happy to see my guys finish the season out the right way and get that Rose Bowl win, but it was tough. Not going to say it was the easiest thing, but at the same time, one of those things where it is what it is.”

The post-game show…

Welcome home: Although he was among a number of former players taking in this week’s spring practice sessions, it was good to see the return of former All-America defensive tackle Leonard “Big Cat” Williams, still sporting his trademark Afro and big smile. Big Cat may now be a perennial NFL All-Pro, but his heart is still a USC Trojan.

Welcome home – Part 2: The Los Angeles Rams have signed former Trojan and free agent wide receiver Robert Woods, who had been with the Buffalo Bills. What a tremendous opportunity for Robert to play professionally in not only his hometown but a return to the Coliseum, as well.

Brotherly love: It is expected that former Trojans All-America offensive tackle Matt Kalil, formerly with the Minnesota Vikings, will join his All-Pro brother, center Ryan Kalil, by signing as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers. Matt is recovering from torn labrum surgery, and there is nothing like a little family reunion to speed the process along. I can tell you one thing, nobody is happier with the reunion than daddy, Frank, and the rest of the Kalil clan. No more decisions on whom to watch on what weekend.

Don Corleone: You know it’s spring football time when devoted USC football booster Bruce “The Godfather” Bagni makes his journey west from his Jacksonville, Florida home to watch his beloved Trojans. Bagni, a retired federal prosecutor, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, so coming home this week is always a treat.

The reminder: The USC Coaches Clinic is nearing. The clinic, open to the coaches and the general public and runs March 31-April 1, has finalized its guest speaker roster. Guest talkers include: Washington head coach Chris Petersen, Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen, Utah State head coach Matt Wells, Los Angeles Rams assistant head coach/linebackers coach and former Trojans linebacker and assistant coach Joe Barry, Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, and New York Giants wide receivers coach Adam Henry.

The reminder – Part 2: Cost of the two-day clinic is $80 ($65 for a single day). The clinic offers a staff discount of $15 off per person for groups of five or more who pre-register together for both days. Online registration is available at: www.FIGHTONCAMPS.com. For more information, email [email protected].

The last word: It’s that time of the year when camps and clinics abound, and the biggest is today (Sunday) at local El Camino College, as Nike holds its annual SoCal regional camp, which will include some huge Trojans verbals and recruits like linebacker Palaie Gaoteote (Las Vegas Bishop Gorman), quarterback Matt Corral (Long Beach Poly), and a number of linebacking recruits from that deep dish of talent. Let the cycle begin!

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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