By Johnny Curren
The Trojans opened up spring practice on Tuesday afternoon, and there was a definite atmosphere of enthusiasm evident not only in the way that the players went about their business on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field, but also USC head coach Clay Helton.
“I could hardly sleep last night with excitement to get back with the team, and to be a part of this, and to get our team fully back together,” Helton said.
With plenty of new faces on the coaching staff, Helton said that they have four points of emphasis that they are preaching this spring – technique, toughness, togetherness and trust.
“That’s what we’re focusing on as a staff, and I love what these guys are doing as a coaching staff,” Helton said. “One of the things that you’re going to see from these coaches, they coach extremely hard. They’re tough coaches, and we believe in coaching the best players the hardest. You coach JuJu [Smith-Schuster] as hard as humanly possible. You coach Max Browne as hard as humanly possible. You coach those older guys that have been around, and the young ones fall into place.”
Leading a two-hour long, shorts and helmets practice session that featured plenty of highlight plays on both sides of the ball, Helton said that it was the wide receiver corps that really caught his eye throughout the day.
“The wide out group really stood out,” Helton said. “When you look out there and you see a JuJu doing so well. All of a sudden Ajene [Harris] is back healthy. You see Darreus Rogers acting like a senior out there. Isaac Whitney and De’Quan [Hampton] getting a year older. Two talented freshmen…”
Quarterback competition gets underway
Of course, it was the Trojans quarterbacks who drew everyone’s attention right from the get-go on Tuesday. After all, the starting role has been declared completely up for grabs following the departure of a three-year starter in Cody Kessler
Not surprisingly, Redshirt-junior passer Max Browne took the bulk of the reps with the No. 1 offense on Tuesday, with redshirt-freshman Sam Darnold, redshirt-sophomore Jalen Greene and early-entrant freshman Matt Fink taking snaps with the reserve units.
No single player stole the show in the first practice of the spring, although Browne did appear to showcase the most poise in the pocket, and he also had the arguable highlight throw of the day, hitting Smith-Schuster for a 40-yard-plus touchdown along the sideline during a late 11-on-11 period.
“It was absolutely awesome to see those guys out there,” Helton said. “It was neat to see a third-year vet come out and look smooth and act like a third-year vet in Max Browne. And then to have three really talented young guys right behind him, it makes you feel good as a coach. It helps you sleep at night to have that position really solidified with a lot of talent.”
After practice Helton said that the possibility exists that a starter will be named following the completion of spring ball, but there is also a chance that the battle could rage on into fall camp.
“I think if there is a huge gap, then yes, you can make that decision,” Helton said. “If there’s still some work to be done as we go into fall, we’ll take that.”
Wheeler back in the fold
Redshirt-senior Chad Wheeler, who missed the season-ending Holiday Bowl after he was involved in an incident with the police last December, took part in the entirety of Tuesday’s practice, spending the bulk of his day with the No. 1 offense at left tackle.
“It’s great to have him here,” Helton said. “Obviously, he went through some personal issues. I’m so glad to have him back. He looks great. He looked great through winter workouts, and I’m just really looking forward to him becoming a better football player in his senior year. I really stressed to him, he’s always been a great athlete for his size – He needs to be a master of his craft. He needs to be a technician of his craft, and I’m so glad Neil Callaway is here to be able to do that for him.”
Wheeler also spoke on the matter following practice.
“I dealt with it,” said Wheeler, who has started 34 games in his career. “I regret what I did. I apologize to my coach, to my teammates, and I apologize to the fans. I did have personal issues, and I dealt with them, and I’m just looking forward to coming out next season strong.”
Zach Banner, who spent most of the day at right tackle, also took some reps at left tackle with the No. 1 group in place of Wheeler, with Chuma Edoga sliding in with the first group at right tackle.
“It’s good competing against Chuma and Zach,” Wheeler said. “We’re pushing each other and getting better every day. It helps me push myself too, knowing that I have to compete harder.”
News and notes
– Among those who missed practice on Tuesday included Chris Hawkins (ankle surgery), Toa Lobendahn (knee), Osa Masina (hamstring), Taylor McNamara (strep throat), Quinton Powell (strep throat), Khalil Rodgers and Cameron Smith (knee).
– Safety Leon McQuay III will miss spring practice due to a scheduling conflict with a class that he needs to take in order to graduate.
– Helton said that Scott Felix’s status is unchanged at this point. He is out due to personal reasons, with his eligibility still in question.
– Don Hill will not be with the team this spring due to a violation of team rules.
– Adoree’ Jackson watched, but did not participate in practice.
– The primary starting offense consisted of Browne at QB, Justin Davis at RB, Smith-Schuster at WR, Rogers at WR, Steven Mitchell at WR, Tyler Petite at TE, Wheeler at LT, Damien Mama at LG, Nico Falah at C, Viane Talamaivao at RG, and Banner at RT.
– The primary starting defense consisted of Porter Gustin at OLB, Uchenna Nwosu at OLB, Rasheem Green at DE, Noah Jefferson at N, Kenny Bigelow at DE, Michael Hutchings at ILB, John Houston Jr. at ILB, Isaiah Langley at CB, Iman Marshall at CB, Marvell Tell at S, and Matt Lopes at S.
– Greene spent the day exclusively at quarterback.
– Early-entrant freshman Oluwole Betiku spent the day at one of the outside linebacker spots. He stayed after practice to get extra work in and was one of the last players to leave the field.
– During a late one-on-one period Ykili Ross had a beautiful pass break-up on a Fink pass intended for Josh Imatorbhebhe. During the same period, Browne hit Michael Pittman for a deep gain along the sideline over Langley.
– The defense got the better of the offense in the final five-play challenge, 3-1. Browne started things off with a 15-yard completion to Rogers. On the second play Browne completed a pass to Mitchell, but he was stopped short of a first down. On the third play Browne was sacked by Gustin and Green. On the final play Browne’s pass fell incomplete.
– The Trojans have typically practiced with music playing in the background in recent years, but not on Tuesday, and not any time in the immediate future according to Helton.
“I wanted it to just be about ball,” Helton said. “This spring is about just football, and learning football, teaching football, and being able to hear your coaches teach football.”
– A number of former Trojans players were in attendance on Tuesday, including Sua’ Cravens, Chris Hale, Tim Lavin, Tom Malone, Hayes Pullard, Randall Telfer, George Uko and Soma Vainuku.
– Nwosu stopped J. Davis for no gain.
– Darnold hit Petite outside for a gain of 10 yards.
– Bigelow stopped Ronald Jones II after a short gain.
– Browne connected with Daniel Imatorbhebhe for a gain of close to 10 yards.
– Greene hit Whitney over the middle for a gain of around 20 yards.
– Fink connected with Hampton outside for a gain of eight or nine yards.
– Browne hit Hampton over the middle for a gain of 10 yards.
– Browne hit Smith-Schuster over the middle, who then showed off his speed and bounced outside for a total gain of close to 30 yards.
– Darnold connected with J. Imatorbhebhe for a gain of close to 10 yards.
– Darnold hit Mitchell in the corner of the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown.
– Browne tried to connect with Hampton outside, but Marshall broke up the pass.
– Browne hit Deontay Burnett over the middle for a gain of 10 yards.
– Greene hit Burnett outside for a gain of eight or nine yards.
– Browne hit Petite over the middle for a gain of close to 10 yards.
– Lopes stopped a quick pass over the middle to J. Davis for no gain.
– Browne hit Hampton over the middle for a gain of 15 yards.
– Joel Foy sacked Darnold.
– Browne hit Smith-Schuster along the sideline for a 40-yard-plus touchdown.
– Jefferson sacked Greene.
– Greene hit J. Imatorbhebhe outside for a gain of 10 yards.
– Bigelow and others sacked Browne.
– Jabari Ruffin sacked Browne.
– Browne hit Rogers for a 15-yard gain.
– Gustin and Green combined for a sack on Browne.