By Johnny Curren
With Saturday’s clash with Alabama inching closer and closer, the Trojans took part in a shorts, shoulder pads and helmets practice on Wednesday afternoon, with USC head coach Clay Helton noting that there was a special focus in three primary areas – third-down situations, ball security and takeaways.
The practice itself was marked by several deep touchdown passes by both Max Browne and Sam Darnold, as well as a leaping interception by Jack Jones along the sideline, but the biggest news of the day came following the two-and-a-half hour workout as Helton announced this season’s team captains.
“I was able to add up all of the votes of our players, and offensively our players have nominated Max Browne and Zach Banner, and Adoree’ Jackson and Michael Hutchings as our defensive team captains,” Helton said. “I’d love to congratulate those men. They’ve done fine work over the spring and summer to earn those positions.”
It’s a tremendous achievement for all four players, particularly in the case of Hutchings, who has spent the bulk of his career serving in a backup role. After rededicating himself this past offseason, however, the 6-foot-1 senior was outstanding throughout fall camp, emerging as the starter at the WILL inside linebacker position.
“That’s a great honor to get voted as one of the team captains by my teammates,” Hutchings said. “Coming into the winter and coming into the spring my approach to everything was that this is my last year – approaching every day like I had nothing else to gain after this year. There was nothing that I could come back and fix. Everything was dependent on this year.”
Wheeler making progress
After making it through about half of Tuesday’s practice session, Chad Wheeler, who sat out most of fall camp due to plantar fasciitis, took part in the bulk of Wednesday’s workout, running with the No. 2 offense at left tackle during a majority of the 11-on-11 periods.
Helton announced earlier this week that sophomore Chuma Edoga will start in Wheeler’s place against Alabama, but if the past two days are any indication, there appears to be reason to believe that there is a legitimate chance that the redshirt senior will see time against the Crimson Tide in a reserve role.
“Chad got a little bit more [work] today – a little bit more progressive,” Helton said. “We’ll get another day tomorrow to warm him up for the game, and see how much he can do in the game. Hopefully we can get a couple series’ out of him.”
Baxter says Tilbey and Budrovich will both play
Chris Tilbey and Reid Budrovich have been battling it out for the starting punter job throughout the month of August, with both players looking sharp in recent days, and drawing praise from Helton as a result.
On Wednesday USC special teams coach John Baxter was asked about the competition, and he revealed that both Tilbey, a right-footed punter, and Budrovich, a lefty, are likely to play against Alabama.
“They’re both going to play because they both do different things well,” Baxter said. “When and how much I don’t know. Here’s the way I look at kickers and punters – I look at them like a pitching staff, and the good thing is that in baseball when a guy comes in and comes back out he can’t play again. In football you can keep bringing in the righty, you can keep bringing in the lefty. Whatever you have to do to get the batter out.”
When asked to discuss each punter’s specific strengths and how that could factor into the equation, Baxter declined to provide an answer for strategic purposes.
“You’ll see that as the season unfolds,” Baxter said. “We let the film do the talking.”
News and notes
– Helton said that there was no update on Osa Masina, who is suspended for USC’s opener for a violation of team rules. The sophomore linebacker, who is reportedly under investigation for sexual assault, was suited up and again practiced with the team.
– Jamel Cook (foot) and John Plattenburg (concussion) did not participate in practice.
– Ykili Ross was full-go after missing the team’s practice on Tuesday due to illness.
– Helton said that both Marvell Tell (hamstring) and Noah Jefferson (back) are cleared and going full-speed these days.
– Tell went with the No. 1 defense at one safety spot throughout the day, with Chris Hawkins at the other. Leon McQuay III came in on nickel situations to cover the slot.
– Jefferson, meanwhile, continued to take extensive reps with the No. 1 defense. He, Malik Dorton and Rasheem Green all rotated in at the two defensive end positions throughout practice, with Stevie Tu’ikolovatu lining up at nose.
– Chris Brown spent the day with the No. 1 offense at left goard, while Damien Mama went with the No. 2 unit. Helton said that he believes that the two players will likely split time “50-50” at the position against Alabama.
“We’ll sit down after tomorrow’s practice and visit with Coach [Neil] Callaway and see where we’re going to start with, but I anticipate both of those guys playing a lot,” Helton said. “They’ve had terrific camps, and having both of them in there, I think, is advantageous for us.”
– The No. 1 offensive and defensive groups again spent plenty of time working against the service teams. Both Browne and Darnold came up with some nice throws during these periods, with Browne hooking up with Deontay Burnett and Isaac Whitney on deep touchdown passes, and Darnold connecting with Greene and Smith-Schuster on long scoring tosses.
– Helton said that with greater depth at receiver, Adoree’ Jackson is likely to line up on offense only five or six plays per game this season.
– Among those on hand were former Trojans players Shaun Cody, Jim Hardy and John Papadakis.
– Browne hit Taylor McNamara outside for a gain of 7 or 8 yards.
– Browne hit JuJu Smith-Schuster outside for a gain of 15 yards.
– Porter Gustin sacked Browne.
– Browne hit Isaac Whitney outside for a gain of 15 yards.
– Browne hit Jalen Greene over the middle for a gain of around 10 yards.
– Browne hit Steven Mitchell outside, but Ross came up in a hurry to limit the play to a short gain.
– Sam Darnold hit De’Quan Hampton outside for a 10-yard gain.
– Darnold tried to hit Darreis Rogers outside, bit J. Jones jumped in front and make the pick.
– Browne hit Mitchell outside for a gain of close to 10 yards.
– Browne hit Justin Davis outside, and thanks to a big block by Banner, he darted down the sideline for a big gain.
– Browne hit Mitchell over the middle for a gain of 20 yards.
– Darnold hit Cary Angeline over the middle for a 35-yard TD.
– Darnold hit Michael Pittman over the middle for a 12 or 13-yard gain.
– Josh Imatorbhebhe made a diving catch for over 10 yards on a throw outside by Darnold.
– Browne hit Mcnamara down the middle for 15 yards.
– Browne hit Burnett outside for a gain of close to 20 yards.
– Browne hit Burnett outside for a gain of around 15 yards.
– Browne hit McNamara outside for a 30-yard TD.
– Jefferson stopped Chris Edmondson for no gain.
– Darnold hit Tyler Vaughns outside for a gain of 15 yards with Jackson in coverage.
– Darnold hit Pittman outside for a gain of 10 or 11 yards.
– Smith stopped Lance Mudd for no gain.