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O/NSO: End of the beginning edition

The Obvious: The 15th and final spring practice session will take place on Saturday morning (10:15 a.m. PDT) on Howard Jones and Brian Kennedy Fields, as Clay Helton’s 2019 USC Trojans will have one final workout in full pads – a free, open-to-the-public finale – that initiates four months of cardinal and gold gridiron hibernation for one of college football’s most storied programs. 

The Not So Obvious: So, Saturday afternoon begins the long haul of boredom for USC fans who have to wait with either eager anticipation or uneasy trepidation until the 2019 opener against Fresno State in a completely renovated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which is scheduled to be done on Aug. 24 in time for the Rams exhibition home game against the Denver Broncos. More uncertain than the Trojans depth chart, however, will be exactly what official sponsored name will the renovated Coli go by, so help me United Airlines Memorial Coliseum. That may be more of a mystery than the naming of the Trojans’ starting quarterback.

The Obvious: Tim Drevno is the Trojans’ offensive line coach, who mentors a position group that some say will dictate the success or failure of the new Air Raid offense.

Offensive line coach Tim Drevno is pleased with his units adjustment to the Air Raid offense

The Not So Obvious: With just one spring practice session left, Drevno was asked what pleased him about his O-line from the beginning of spring ball until the present. The coach said, “I think the way they just bought into what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of scheme, the playbook, the Air Raid, how we’re coaching them, and how they’re trying to fix problems when we fix something. How we talk about it. They’re fully in, and I love their attitude and they want to be good. Their work ethic has been outstanding. From Day 1 to Practice 12, you turn on the film and it’s like night and day.”

In terms of increased physicality as it applies to the Air Raid offense, Drevno added, “You know, offensive scheme is offensive scheme. Simplicity helps because we know where we’re going. There’s less confusion, so it makes you more physical when you don’t have a huge playbook and that helps us. Can we grow in that area? Absolutely. You grow every day in physicality. We’re making good strides at it.”

The Obvious: The end-of-spring offensive line figures to be LT Austin Jackson (6-6, 305, Jr.), LG Alijah Vera-Tucker (6-4, 310, Soph),C Brett Neilon (6-2, 295, Soph), RG Andrew Vorhees (6-6, 315, Jr.), and RT Jalen McKenzie (6-6, 310, Soph).

Sophomore Alijah Vera-Tucker is looking to nail down the open left offensive guard position

The Not So Obvious: Asked about the development of Alijah Vera-Tucker, Coach Drevno said, “I think he has made his biggest improvement in recoverability and learning the offensive system technique wise. His recoverability is good as he comes out smelling like a rose. Playbook wise, he’s starting to understand everything and ask questions when he’s in the room. His football lens is starting to widen huge.”

Asked about starting offensive tackles Austin Jackson and Jalen McKenzie, Drevno quickly responded, “They’re good players!”

The Obvious: One of the key position changes this spring was when former defensive lineman Liam Jimmons (6-4, 290)was moved to offensive tackle.

One surprise of spring practice has been the successful conversion of Liam Jimmons from the defensive line to offensive tackle, a stark revelation that has brought a smile to Coach Drevno

The Not So Obvious: Asked how the junior from Huntington Beach (Calif.) was doing in his transition to O-line,Coach Drevno said, “Liam Jimmons has done a heck of a job. He’s a guy when he sits in a room, he’s got an unbelievable maturity about him. He takes in what you’re trying to tell him, and he fixes problems. He’s got really good recoverability. He can get in half of a block and then turn and get square on the block. Those are things you can’t coach. It’s God-given ability, so he’s got a lot of football savvy.”

The Obvious: One of the big surprises of spring practice has been the emergence of freshman wide receiver John Jackson lll, the son of former Trojans’ wide receiver great John Jackson Jr. and grandson of late USC offensive coordinator John Jackson Sr.

John Jackson III – A legacy sprint for his Dad and his late Grandfather, both former Trojans

The Not So Obvious: As most Trojans fans are aware, the youngest Jackson has been playing with both a burning desire to succeed and a heavy heart due to a stroke suffered by his dad. Asked about how his dad is doing, the youngest “J.J” said, “You know I always go visit him, I get to talk to him on the weekends, go back during the week. He’s happy for me. I show him all the stuff that I’ve done. We even sit down and watch film like we used to. He’s in good spirits, doing a lot better and it’s been nothing but a blessing seeing him get better.” 

The Obvious: In last weekend’s USC Spring Showcase, the performance of John Jackson lll, which included a long catch and run touchdown,drew rave reviews.

The Not So Obvious: Asked about last weekend’s breakout spring performance, Jackson said, “It felt pretty good. Learning from guys like Tyler (Vaughns), (Michael) Pittman, all the older guys, veterans, really kind of coached me through this whole spring. It felt good to get out there and showcase what I really have.” Asked about his biggest improvement this spring, No. 87 added, “Coach Helton talks big about finishing plays. That’s one thing that I personally looked at the tape and self-analyzed and realized I didn’t do a good job on. So then after that I really focused on making sure I always finish with the ball and give that extra effort and tried to really step up during the spring.”      

The Obvious: John Jackson lll is being compared to former Trojans’ standout receiver Deontay Burnett, now with the NY Jets.

Can you ever forget WR Deontay Burnett’s late fourth quarter TD grab from Sam Darnold that contributed to a dramatic victory over Penn State in the 2017 dramatic Rose Bowl game?

The Not So Obvious: Asked about the comparison to Deontay Burnett, Jackson said, “Yeah, Deontay, you know he’s been one of my mentors through this whole process and him being an ex-Serra guy I got to see him a lot and me coming here a lot I got to see him here too. So, us being around him really helped and he rubbed off on me. Hopefully, one day I can do what he did.” 

The Obvious: Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton announced prior to the start of spring practice in March that a starting quarterback would not be named following final spring practice.

The Not So Obvious: Offensive coordinator and QB coach Graham Harrell told the media this week that following this Saturday’s final spring practice session, he would sit down with all the quarterbacks and inform them if a game were played “today,” “this” would be the depth chart pecking order. If this is accurate, it says two things: (1) Word will leak out eventually what the quarterbacks were told, and (2) Word of the quarterback pecking order will sure to be leaked to teammates.

The Obvious: Graham Harrell is the Trojans’ first-year offensive coordinator.

First-year OC Graham Harrell gave a refreshingly public critique this week of his four QBs

The Not So Obvious: Give Harrell a ton of credit with being open and honest in his evaluation of his four quarterback candidates. This week, Graham gave some insight into Jack Sears, Kevin Slovis, Matt Fink, and JT Daniels. The Trojans’ OC said that Sears is the most athletic and gave high praise for his mobility. Slovis, according to Harrell, is really doing well and has not been phased much from his transition from high school. As for Fink, Harrell said when Matt is “on,” he’s really good, but when he isn’t “on” he struggles. Harrell added that Matt is the most spirited of the group but needs to channel positive energy because when he becomes negative, it affects his play and those around him. Finally, in one of the most objective evaluations of JT Daniels that we have heard since the former Mater Dei legend arrived on campus, Harrell said that JT is really smart and a hard worker but tends to overthink situations, which slows the offense down at times. 

The Obvious: One of the best qualities a quarterback can have is that of leadership.

The Not So Obvious: This week, Graham Harrell made a major point of emphasis saying that one of the major attributes he looks for in a quarterback is leadership. As you listened to Harrell stressing importance of leadership, it felt like the Trojans’ quarterback coach was making sure that the media understood leadership on and off the field would be one of his main criteria in choosing a starting quarterback for 2019. Of course, Harrell’s recommendation for quarterback needs to be agreed upon by Clay Helton, who will have the final word on the matter.  

The Obvious: Clancy Pendergast is the Trojans’ fourth-year defensive coordinator.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is hoping for improvement in 2019

The Not So Obvious: One of the biggest changes that Clancy has done this spring is simplify the defense, which also included moving outside junior linebacker Jordan Iosefa and sophomore outside linebacker Kana’i Mauga to the inside, joining senior John Houston Jr. Moving Iosefa (6-2, 230) and Mauga (6-2, 240) inside brings a physical presence with speed.

The Obvious: A lot of the Trojans’ defensive success for 2019 will be created by a talented linebacker unit.

The Not So Obvious: Commenting on his moveable linebacker unit, DC Clancy Pendergast said, “We moved John Houston to the middle linebacker position as well, so just getting he and Jordan (Iosefa) getting both quality reps in there, we have changed it daily who is going to go and when. I feel very confident with Jordan and John at any time. I think Kana’i (Mauga) has done a really good job moving from defensive end or outside position to the inside. Ralen Goforth, who is a mid-year player this year, has made a lot of strides and broke up a couple of balls today (Thursday). He done some really nice things for us. Juliano (Falaniko), we’ve moved him inside as well, and he’s done some explosive things as well.”

Senior inside linebacker John Houston Jr. hopes to lead the defense this coming fall

The Obvious: Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Trojans’ defense in 2019 will be the secondary.

The Not So Obvious: Assessing the secondary, Clancy Pendergast said, “There’s not a lot of experience there, and summer is going to be critical. They’re going to have really work in the off-season not only in the weight room but also in the player-run practices. The time we get to meet with them will be critical, and they need to take that into fall camp and have a good four weeks before we have the opener versus Fresno. We want size in the secondary, and we want safeties with coverability because so many teams play with three and four wide receivers. A lot of the nickel packages we play is three safeties. We want athletic guys that can play in space.”  

And finally, Jurrell Casey is a former Trojans All-Pac-12 defensive tackle who was a third round of the Tennessee Titans in the 2011 draft.

The Not So Obvious: As a former third round pick by the Titans, Jurrell will represent Tennessee in the announcement of the Titans’ third-round in the 2019 NFL draft. The NFL is making an effort to connect with the next generation of stars, 64 NFL legends and active players have been added to the 2019 NFL Draft by announcing various selections and participating in festivities in Nashville. Round 2 Draft selections will be proclaimed by previous NFL club’s first-round picks, while Round 3 will be declared by players like Jurrell Casey who were drafted in later rounds.

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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