11 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Spring Game musings

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

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

Overview: Despite the fact that the USC Spring Game was not really a game at all but a structured practice with selected tackling, most fans in attendance walked away from the Coliseum satisfied that they enjoyed the overall atmosphere, which included just enough football action, recognitions, prizes, giveaways, and photo opportunities to be worth the time spent. With a perfect sunny day in Southern California combined with mild temperatures, it was all you could ask. Given the variables of already announced injuries and format change, the “practice” was short, but the pace was anything but flat out boring. Depending on one’s expectations, there was something for everyone, and fans won’t soon forget seeing Trojans blind sophomore center Jake Olson (photo above) end the day with a success snap on a final special teams moment.

Reality check: Even actual spring games with non-stop hitting and tackling tend to drag after a while because nothing is really on the line. The good news is that nobody got hurt on Saturday. Clay Helton, his staff, and the players know where they need to improve and what are the remaining issues, so it will be the “off-season” that will provide the program a chance to quietly address some of those issues that surfaced during spring and address those shortcomings in the coming months.

The offense: In his limited time on the field on Saturday, Heisman Trophy candidate and starting sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold was the man, but the bigger story was the obvious improvement of backup quarterback Matt Fink and the growth of true freshman QB Jack Sears. Each showed positives and used this spring to increase their productivity. Not surprisingly, redshirt freshman running back Vavai Malepeai continued to show glimpses of future excellence, something he displayed during most of the spring. Given the injury status, the patchwork offensive line did a nice job of blocking on run plays and was fairly proficient on pass blocking. There were some other positives such as the receiving corps, especially the efforts of redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns (20-yd. TD reception), sophomore Michael Pittman Jr., and the speed of redshirt freshman Velus Jones Jr. Also showing his value was junior receiver Jalen Greene, the former quarterback, who actually threw a reverse pass downfield.    

The defense: What a year a defensive line makes. At this time last spring, there was grave concern regarding the depth and efficiency of the D-line and questions regarding first-year D-line coach Kenechi Udeze. As of today, it appears thumbs-up regarding the increased talent, productivity, and coaching. Saturday’s “practice” was yet another good outing for true freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipolotu, who chimed in with four tackles, one for a loss. Simply put, Marlon is a stud and just wait until incoming freshman Jay Tufele, who was at Saturday’s Coliseum exercise, officially steps on campus. There are some that believe Tufele may be even better than Tuipolotu. As for the linebacker play, The Men of Troy on Saturday were led – not surprisingly – by junior inside backer Cameron Smith with four tackles while precocious sophomore OLB Oluwole Betiku Jr. added four tackles, as well. The secondary made some fine fundamental plays on pass defense led by walk-on safety Matt Lopes, who had four tackles and is the son of current Trojans’ Senior Associate Athletic Director Steve Lopes. And there was the intriguing play of combo corner-safety Jamel Cook (6-3, 185), the tall and physical redshirt athlete from Miami, Florida.

The special teams: All eyes on Saturday were also on redshirt freshman placekicker Michael Brown who made five of seven attempts with a howitzer shot of 50 yards. To be fair, there was not much of rush if at all in trying to disrupt Brown, but the kid seemed to gain confidence after a shaky start. No question he has the leg, but can he do it in the fall with intense scrutiny from both large crowds and national television? Only time will tell, but he has the talent.

Crowd count: If there was disappointment on Saturday, it was the announced crowd of 14,781. Although fans came in all sorts of cardinal and gold attire and were generally excited to watch their heroes, the attendance was well below the anticipated 25,000 some had predicted and well below last season’s turnout (23,000). Part of the reason for the lower numbers on Saturday could have been the fact that there was advanced notice that the Men of Troy would not be scrimmaging and would be holding a glorified practice.

Crowd count – Part 2: The spring game was also live on the Pac-12 Network. Whatever the reason for the empty seats, you can bet the Trojans will draw large numbers to the Coliseum for the first three games of next season (Western Michigan, Stanford, Texas). Unless they stumble out of the gate, attendance shouldn’t be a problem early, especially if the Cardinal and Gold are highly ranked in the preseason as expected.

The last picture show: Saturday marked the final public viewing of Traveler Vll, who is retiring and will be replaced by Traveler lX, who will make its debut next season when the Trojans host Western Michigan on Sept. 2. A good number of fans were outside Tunnel 3 snapping photos of Traveler Vll. For those wonder what about Traveler Vlll, sadly this horse passed away prematurely, and Traveler lX was moved up the depth chart to be ready for the coming season.

The jersey: While there were many cardinal jerseys worn by fans around the Coliseum, there were few No. 14 jerseys, which is the number of quarterback Sam Darnold. Expect the No. 14 jerseys to grow dramatically by the first game against Western Michigan.

Good idea: Because Saturday’s event was not a true scrimmage between a divided squad, give the Trojans props for implementing video segments by Clay Helton explaining to the fans in the Coliseum just what they would be watching on the field during each team period.

The dilemma: During Saturday’s hitting portion of the practice, fans were treated to the running ability of Vavae Malepeai, and the freshman drew the awes of the faithful on one carry when he seemed to weave and reverse direction deep into the point of attack. Obviously very physical, Malepeai, whose parents had flown in from Hawaii, showed extremely quick feet to make some eye-opening change of direction. Vavae looks like he is in position to contest some of the current running backs for playing time when training camp arrives in August.

The dilemma – Part 2: For Trojans first-year running back coach Deland McCullough, he’ll have some decisions to make during the 29 days of August training camp, and we’re not even taking into consideration the arrival of heralded freshman Stephen Carr, also in attendance on Saturday, who is expected to strongly compete for playing time.

From the press box…

IMHO: I thought introducing the heralded Trojans 2017 football recruiting class during the spring game was an excellent idea. Incoming freshman tackle Austin Jackson really looks facially like his grandfather, former Trojans offensive lineman Melvin Jackson (1974-75). Melvin, who played for legendary coach John McKay, was listed at 6-feet-1 and 253-pounds during his cardinal and gold playing days while grandson Austin is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 290-pounds.

IMHO – Part 2:
It was also a thumbs-up recognition on Saturday when the Trojans handed out Rose Bowl rings to the 2016 seniors. Corner Adoree’ Jackson, who is hoping to be chosen in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft, was wearing a No. 21 Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Garnett jersey. Trojans fans showed some real appreciation for last season’s Rose Bowl champions when the rings were handed out and players’ names were announced individually.

Scoreboarding: One of the first things fans noticed inside the Coliseum were the missing video and scoreboards located in the peristyle end. New and larger scoreboards are expected to be functional when the Trojans open the season against Western Michigan on Sept. 2.

One for the money:
One of the more popular vending tables at the Coliseum on Saturday was the “$5 table,” although you could also get clothing for a flat $10 per item. I’ll admit, I couldn’t resist and paid $5 for a Marcus Allen bobblehead doll, which was a giveaway promotion last season.

Food for thought: For those who elected to have lunch inside the Coliseum and used one of the many walk-up concession stands, you could order a “Coliseum Meal” for $14, which included a Coli dog, bad of chips, and a soda.

For the kids: One of the larger lines was fans with children signing up for the Trojans Kids Club. For a spring game discounted price of $20, Kids Club members received a replica USC football jersey, USC basketball player piggy bank, headphones, cereal bowl, and will be entitled to tickets to future USC athletic events.

The post-game show…

Negotiations: With Washington football coach Chris Petersen signing a contract extension that runs through 2023 that reportedly averages nearly $5 million a season, what might Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann be willing to pay if Clay Helton takes his team to a Pac-12 title and/or an appearance in the College Football Playoff?

Irish eyes: Sportscaster Ted Robinson, who called Saturday’s play-by-play of the Trojans Spring Game on the Pac-12 Networks, is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Yeah, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

New rules: The NCAA has passed new recruiting legislation that will affect the Trojans one way or another. According to ESPN, “Prospects will be allowed to take official visits, paid for by the school, from April 1 of their junior year through the Sunday before the last Wednesday in June. Before the change, official visits were not allowed before Sept. 1 of a prospect’s senior year. The change in the recruiting calendar becomes effective Aug. 1 and will first affect the 2019 recruiting class.”

New rules – Part 2: In another rule passed by the NCAA, ESPN wrote, Also part of the new legislation are strict rules that mirror what is used in college basketball for individuals associated with prospects, or IAWP. The IAWP rules are designed to prevent schools from hiring anyone associated with a prospect for non-coaching positions.”

New rules – Part 3: Another new NCAA recruiting rule defined by ESPN says, “Another important piece of the proposal reduces when coaches can conduct camps from two 15-day periods in June or July to 10 days in June. It also requires camps to take place on campus or at facilities used primarily for practice or competition by member schools.

“This rule is effective immediately and essentially ends the lengthy, nationwide satellite camp tours like Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s Summer Swarm Tour that became a hotly debated topic in college football the past two summers. However, the new legislation does allow for recruiting conversations to take place at camps and clinics, a change to prior rules.”

New Rules – Part 4: ESPN writes about a rather new but interesting new rule. With the proposal’s passage, prospects will be allowed to take official visits, paid for by the school, from April 1 of their junior year through the Sunday before the last Wednesday in June. Before the change, official visits were not allowed before Sept. 1 of a prospect’s senior year. The change in the recruiting calendar becomes effective Aug. 1 and will first affect the 2019 recruiting class.”

New rules – Part 5: Looking to the immediate future, an interesting new rule that will take place next Jan 9 will be the expansion of a college football coaching staff from nine fulltime assistants to 10 fulltime assistant coaches. It will be interesting how Clay Helton addresses the anticipated new coaching position.

The last word: So, 2017 spring ball is history and Trojans fans must now suffer through the “down” months of late April, May, June, and July before getting to August with the beginning of fall camp. What’s a Trojan fan to do besides wait for the June arrival of those college football magazines? Well, you can always look back at last season’s highlights to give you a quick sugar high. Let’s see if this little promo works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWcA0deFK_k

Greg Katz
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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