22 min Read

IMHO Sunday: The real spring practice whether report (Updated)

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

The time has come (UPDATED): To find out the weather report for the first week of spring practice. Due to heavy rain anticipated for Tuesday, that opening practice day has been cancelled, which means that Day 1 of Spring Practice will now commence on Wednesday (3:40 p.m.) on Howard Jones/Brian Jones Fields. The balance of the week, Thursday (3:40 p.m.) and Saturday (9:50 am), will remain in their original slots unless there is a weather issue.

However, the real weather report is whether the many spring practice questions can be answered in 15 days, spread throughout late March and into April. For your edification, “per NCAA regulations, up to eight practices will be padded practices with tackling segments, and those are expected to be held on Tuesday afternoons (3:40 p.m.) and Saturday mornings (9:50 a.m.) after the NCAA mandated acclimation period ends.”

The time has come – Part 2: To find out whether these spring practices are really going to emphasize physical dominance and tackling repetition, and whether the Trojans new, aggressive, lazor-focused defensive coaching staff has mandated there be now a long overdue physical nature to not only these spring practice sessions but continued into August training camp, as well. Yes, we’ll going to find out whether Clay Helton is flexible enough to adjust to the hardcore requests of his newly appointed staff members, or does he have a choice? Helton has mostly been invisible to the media since the Holiday Bowl loss to Iowa. In fact, Gentleman Clay wasn’t even at last week’s introduction of his new staff additions to the media, which actually didn’t surprise too many of the journalistic professionals in attendance.    

Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) has been very low-key and out-of-sight from the media for the most part other than to discuss the early December signing period and post-game press conference after the Holiday Bowl loss.

The time has come – Part 3: To find out whether the injury rehab issues of Trojans’ quarterbacks Kedon Slovis (Soph) and JT Daniels (R-Soph) will play a major factor role in the spring development of the offense. Translated: Who will actually participate in spring ball or be held out for precautionary measures? Let’s see whether veteran quarterback Matt Fink (R-Sr) takes a majority of the scrimmage snaps, as returning starter Kedon Slovis may be “on a pitch count.” As for Daniels, who has switched jersey numbers from No. 18 to No. 10, it remains to be seen whether he will have much activity at all this spring, as he continues to heal and rehab from his devastating ACL injury and ensuing surgery.  

Starting USC sophomore Kedon Slovis (photo above) enters spring practice with questions regarding the number of throwing reps he’ll get in order to let his arm injury continue to heal.

The time has come – Part 4: To find out whether – if possible in 15 days of spring – finding two new offensive tackles is just a matter of moving personnel already on hand as an easy fix, or whether moving last season’s starting guards creates more challenges along the offensive line. We’ll seeing if the quick fix answers are just moving talented left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (R-Jr) to left tackle and developing right guard Jalen McKenzie (R-Jr) to right tackle. However, that would mean that two new offensive guards would need to rise to the occasion. It will be interesting to see whether backup center Justin Dedich (R-Soph) finds a new home at either guard position in order get this talented kid into the lineup.

With the left offensive tackle position open, might the Trojans turn to starting junior left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (photo above) to fill the void?

O-line coach Tim Drevno does have some spare parts for potential starters at either guard or tackle in a pair of Liam’s, Liam Douglass (R-Soph) or Liam Jimmons (R-Sr). Then, there is return of Andrew Vorhees (R-Jr) from a foot injury, and whether he is really ready to compete. Vorhees brings a wealth of experience. So many things to sort out. At the end of the day, according to OC Graham Harrell, it’s going to be the best five linemen on the field.

Trojans’ offensive line coach Tim Drevno (photo above) has his work cut out trying to find the right combination this spring with both starting tackles from last season needing to be replaced.

The time has come – Part 5: To find out whether newcomer wide receivers Kyle Ford (R-Fr) and Bru McCoy (R-Fr) are that good, and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. Newly named Trojans’ safeties coach Craig Naivar, who remembers Bru last spring practice in Austin when both were with UT, said Bru lived up to the hype as Longhorns defenders zeroed in and McCoy more than held his own.  And there should also be some excitement over early freshman enrollee Gary Bryant Jr. (Fr), who looked so impressive in the All-American Bowl in San Antonio. We’ll see whether Bryant can assert himself in spring and become part of the rotation.

It’s been quite a journey for redshirt freshman wide receiver Bru McCoy (photo above), who first signed with the Trojans, transferred to Texas for spring ball last year, returned to Troy, and suffered a undisclosed illness that hampered his ability to get on the field last season. Now McCoy appears ready to go for spring practice, and Trojans fans are excited to see what this former 5-star recruit can contribute.

Oh, and aren’t we all intrigued to find out whether the return of tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (R-Sr) still has a brilliance to him, which he flashed before injury put him on the shelf the past two seasons. First-year Trojans’ tight ends coach John David Baker says that Daniel’s health is currently excellent. Baker is on record, however, as saying his tight ends must prove they belong in the Air Raid, or the coach predicts the Trojans will continue with their four-wide receivers sets. We also find out whether junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (Jr) will participate much in spring while he recovers from hernia surgery.

Redshirt senior tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (photo above) appears healthy and ready to go for spring ball. His return could really be a boon for the tight end position. The NCAA has granted Imatorbhebhe a 6th season of eligibility,

The time has come – Part 6: To find out whether offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is going to enhance the running game by putting in some counter plays and some two-back sets, especially when you have four really talented running backs. Returners Vavae Malepeai (R-Sr), Stephen Carr (Sr), Markese Stepp (Soph), and Kenan Christon (Soph) could probably start for a majority of the Pac-12 teams. RB coach Mike Jinks will be testing the combinations. However, in his address to the media on Tuesday, OC Harrell gave coy answers when asked about the backs. He said they had to be healthy to run the ball, and some in the media didn’t know whether that meant last season or that there are still lingering ailments heading into spring ball. It has been revealed that Stepp will probably miss spring ball while continue to recover from his ankle injury. We’ll see whether the potential disruption of running back health plays a major role in the development of a running game.   

It is expected that sophomore running back Markese Stepp (photo above) will miss much if not all of spring practice in order to keep the healing process from ankle surgery in order.


The time has come – Part 7: To find out whether the real base defenses of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando can merge with the talent already on hand. Ah, the mystery of it all. And let’s not forget that Orlando will be in charge of the linebackers, and won’t it be interesting to see that evolution of schemes this spring, and how it may affect any position changes. One thing that Orlando emphasized to the media this past week is that his defense will search and destroy. He placed heavy emphasis on the word “violent.” In terms of personnel, we’ll see whether the new schemes will help answer who replaces graduated John Houston Jr. on the inside. Will it be Palaie Gaoteote (Jr), or will the physical one be moved to the outside? And what of impressive freshman ILB Ralen Goforth (Soph)? Where does Ralen fit in the Todd Orlando linebacker picture? And how about the return of the intriguing LB Solomon Tuliapupu (R-Soph)? Hopefully, well find out this spring whether the former all-world prep linebacker from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei is finally healthy and unleashed.   

Will redshirt sophomore LB Solomon Tuliaupupu (photo above) finally get his chance to show what he can do after suffering from a foot injury that has been difficult to heal the past two seasons?

The time has come – Part 8: To find out whether new defensive line coach Vic So’oto, the third Trojans D-line coach in three seasons, is well received by a veteran group of defensive linemen led by All-Pac-12 DT Jay Tufele (R-Jr) and fellow tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (R-Jr). So’oto disclosed to the media that players will hate him at first and then come to love him later. The new D-line coach says he has no tolerance for “soft” players. He also indicated that some of his new Trojan personnel were at first challenged by his coaching philosophies – both on and off the field. To illustrate that he means business, So’oto exampled that at Virginia, he demoted seniors to the scout team if they weren’t living up to his expectations.

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Marlon Tuioulotu (photo above – No. 51)) could be a major player in new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s system.

Moving on, we’ll see whether talented freshman Drake Jackson (Soph) stays a down lineman or will be given a shot at outside linebacker in the new defensive scheme. We’ll find out whether the new D-line coach ups the game of veterans like Brandon Pili (Sr). And what about DT Caleb Trembaly (R-SR), who So’oto said has taken on a leadership role? Where does he fit in the picture along with returner Nick Figueroa (R-Jr)? And a little touch of intrigue should come from early spring enrollee Kobe Pepe (Fr), who just happens to be the CIF Defensive Lineman of the Year in addition to being the prestigious Trinity League Defensive MVP. We’ll see whether Pepe is ready for the big boys along the offensive line.    

Redshirt defensive tackle Caleb Tremblay (photo above) has shown good leadership skills, according to first-year D-line coach Vic So’oto.

The time has come – Part 9: To find out whether new defensive backs coach Donte Williams and new safety coach Craig Naivar can work together in molding a talented and now experienced group. Thus far hearing from both coaches, they say they can. What these two new coaches already have in common is Williams, formerly at Oregon, and Naivar, who comes to the Trojans with Todd Orlando from Texas, are both super intense and relentless recruiters. Both demand perfection. Naivar and Williams also both preach physicality and “the big hit” mentality. With this in mind, we’ll see whether talented safeties Talanoa Hufanga (Jr) and Isaiah Pola-Mao (R-Jr) can continue to hit with authority without doing injury to themselves. Speaking of health, will corner Olaijah Griffin (Jr) be physically ready to show Coach Williams what he can do?   

This spring should again showcase the skills of junior safety Talanoa Hufanga (photo above – No. 15). Hufanga should fit nicely in the new defensive system of DC Todd Orlando.

The time has come – Part 10: To find out whether heralded new special teams coach Sean Snyder can live up to his hype during spring ball. The coach’s resume is impeccable, and Trojans fans are hoping that the days of USC special teams being embarrassed with 10 players, 9 players, and some say 8 players on the field is a thing of the past. We’ll see how much the addition of Snyder changes the Trojans’ special teams from inconsistency to an effective, game-changing force. How will Snyder, a former All-America Kansas State punter, shape the kicking mentality and execution of returning USC punter Ben Griffiths (R-Soph)? Snyder, whose legendary father, Bill Snyder, was once a grad assistant for the John McKay Trojans in 1966, is considered a difference-maker.  In terms of kick off and punt returns, Snyder says he likes players on special teams like punt returners and kickoff returners that score touchdowns, which would be a refreshing change if that can be accomplished to some degree in the spring.    

Redshirt sophomore punter Ben Griffiths (photo above) will have a new special teams coaching guru in former Kansas State special teams legend Sean Snyder.

The time has come – Part 11: To find out whether Clay Helton will accept the changes of attitude coming from his own coaching staff, and can he adjust it to his own coaching philosophies. And by the way, we’ll all be looking to see whether all these changes will have an effect on the discipline of the team, which will probably not reveal itself until games are played in the fall.  

From the press box…

The time has come: To find out whether USC fans in big numbers will attend spring ball practices on a daily basis, but the true test will be how many fans come on a Saturday morning (9:50 a.m.)…if rain doesn’t dampen the first day in real pads It should be noted that originally spring practice times were slated for Tues./Thurs. at 3:00 p.m. with Saturday’s at 10:00 a.m. However, there is an official update now states Tues./Thurs. practices on campus will be at 3:40 p.m. with Saturday mornings at 9:50 a.m. as mentioned.

The time has come – Part 2: To find out whether the Spring Showcase (Saturday, April 11, in the Coliseum at noon) will be well attended by the Trojans’ faithful.  

It was made public that the Trojans’ Spring Showcase Game during Spring Practice will be played on Saturday April 11, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at noon.

The time has come – Part 3: To find out whether the media will again be restricted to a small portion of practice grass just inside Goux Gate without a tent to protect ourselves from the dangerous sun rays.

The time has come – Part 4:
To find out whether recruiting has immediately changed with arrival of a new energetic, aggressive recruiting coaching staff, and how many major recruits will make their way into Howard Jones-Brain Kennedy Field for spring ball?

Trojans recruiting has already been affected in a positive way with the hiring of former Oregon D-back coach Donte Williams (photo above). Williams is also considered a taskmaster as a DB coach, as well.

The time has come – Part 5: To find out whether much can be accomplished in the first week of spring ball (3 practices) in potential rain –before breaking for spring vacation.  

The post-game show…

Spring the Pac-12: FYI, Pac-12 schools that have already started spring ball include ASU (Feb. 24), Stanford (Feb. 25), Utah and Arizona (March 2), Oregon State and UCLA (March 3), Cal (March 4), and Oregon (March 5).

Arizona State was the first Pac-12 team to commence 2020 Spring Practice, having begun on Feb. 24. (Photo above by John Hays)

Spring the Pac-12 – Part 2: The Trojans are the only Pac-12 school that is starting practices this week.

Spring the Pac-12 – Part 3:
A Pac-12 school that is opening spring ball the next week after the Trojans is the Colorado Buffaloes with new head coach Karl Dorrell (March 16).

Former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell is the new head coach at the University of Colorado, which will begin Spring Practice on March 16.

Spring the Pac-12 – Part 4: FYI, very late comers to commence spring practice include Washington (March 27) and Washington (April 1).

Spring the Pac-12 – Part 5:
FYI, the Trojans will finish spring ball on Saturday, April 18, as will Pac-12 foes Oregon State, UCLA, and Oregon.

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Sir, do you prefer a spring game or a glorified practice? For me, I will always prefer a true spring game like the good old days. Yeah, something close to an actual game, which seems so much for beneficial than such a “hitting period.” If getting ready for the regular season is the ultimate spring goal, why wouldn’t you conclude with a spring game on the final day of spring practice?

Trojans fans are hopeful that Spring Practice will feature a dramatic upgrade in tackling drills and physical football.

Caller No. 2: My friend, is there an actual spring game that jogs back your memory? Actually, there is. I was writing for East Los Angeles Community College back in 1968, and I remember when ELAC JC All-America tailback Clarence Davis made his debut for John McKay’s Spring Practice Game in the Coliseum. I was there to write on how Davis performed that afternoon, and he did a good job. Clarence was brought in to replace Heisman Trophy winner O.J Simpson, and Davis – while a different type of runner – showed that he, too, would soon become an elite college back at the four-year level. I can tell you this, Clarence Davis was one tough cookie on a football field. A side note, at Washington High, Davis was a nose tackle on defense.

I’ll never forget covering tailback transfer Clarence Davis (photo above) running the football during 1969 Spring Game played in the Coliseum.

Caller No. 3: Greg, how much of an effect will enlarging the recruiting staff have in the Trojans efforts to avoid having another devastating recruiting class? I think increasing the recruiting staff can only help, but the best help in recruiting is winning games and championships. The rest will take care of itself.   

Caller No. 4: GK, this may have been asked before, but if you could make one change in the Coliseum that would be an easy fix for 2020, what would it be? I would immediately move the band from the Sun Deck to right behind the Trojans bench like the good old days. Whenever I see the TMB sitting behind the end zone in the peristyle end, I feel like they’re being punished for some sort of misconduct.   

Would USC strongly consider moving the TMB from the back of the end zone in the peristyle end of the Coli to their once traditional seating arrangement, which was behind the Trojans’ bench?

Caller No. 5: Katzman, given your choice, do you prefer a hot Saturday afternoon or a college football game played on a cold day? I find hot days really draining, so I’d prefer cold days. I’ve covered cold college football like Notre Dame in South Bend and the wind is bone-chilling cold, but a hot day makes me feel like I am melting (ASU in September). My old saying is you can always put clothes on, but you can’t always take them off.  

The Final Word: If you’re planning on attending spring practice, I’d advise bringing the following: A chair, sunscreen, a bottle of water, and a roster, which can be printed from the official USC athletic website at https://usctrojans.com/sports/football/roster   



Greg Katz
Author
Greg Katz

Now in his 58th 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 staff writer 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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