13 min Read

O/NSO: Examination edition

The Obvious: If spring practice was a semester class at USC, then Clay Helton’s (photo above) 2019 Trojans are taking their mid-term scrimmage exam on Saturday morning (10 am.), and it figures that the second scrimmage of spring will be much more intense that last Saturday’s scrimmage, which was called “situational” by their fourth-year head coach.

The Not So Obvious: Including Saturday’s scrimmage, there will be six more spring practices left, and you can bet the players are feeling a sense of urgency as they jockey for spots in the weekly depth chart. This past Tuesday and Thursday were preparation for Round 2 of the scrimmage competition, which to this point does not have a clear-cut leader in the three-way battle at quarterback. As one prepares to scrutinize Saturday’s scrimmage, eyes should train on the quarterback, running backs, and offensive line in particular, and defensively all pupils should be focused on the undermanned secondary and the ability to stop the run and get a pass rush. In last Saturday’s first scrimmage last Saturday, running back Markese Stepp stood out. Who will it be this Saturday?

The Obvious: Many fans at this Saturday’s open public scrimmage will again be checking out the quarterback performances by JT Daniels, Jack Sears, and Matt Fink.

Matt Fink

The Not So Obvious: If the competition was a prize fight, the official scorers would judge it near even through the first 8 rounds with no knockdowns. Daniels, who may actually have a slight lead, is the cerebral dissector of the secondary he faces, Sears is the smart, athletic two-way threat who seems to work best in scrimmage situations, and Fink, who had a very good week of practice leading into Saturday’s scrimmage, is that physical guy, a real competitor, who is probably underrated once again.

The Obvious: One of the key areas that offensive coordinator Graham Harrell looks at intensely is his quarterbacks’ footwork in the pocket.

The Not So Obvious: Leading into the second scrimmage and as it pertains to footwork, Harrell said, “It’s something I look to really emphasis. We talk about how it starts with your feet. Things aren’t going to be perfect obviously, but when things are good, you have to have a plan with your feet. From Day 1, they were all over the place. We talk about it all the time in film and improvement should come and it has come. If your feet timing comes around, your timing should be better and everything. So that’s something we’ve worked on and talked about and improved quite a bit.”

The Obvious: For the second scrimmage in a row, eyes will be viewing the evolving offensive line led by the center competition between Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich, and the line’s adjustment to Graham Harrell’s new offensive philosophy.

Brett Neilon

The Not So Obvious: Asked about the offensive line, Harrell said, “If you saw Saturday’s live team scrimmage, they really started getting some great push on them (the defensive line) and tempo really helps with that. Playing fast helps with that. They started moving the line of scrimmage big time and did some good things. Pass protection is pass protection. If anything, all we’ve done is just simplified it. We’ve taken out most protections and said this is what we want to do and get really good at it. They’ve adjusted to it really well, and we’ve got some guys that are really athletic and when you’re big and athletic you’re usually a pretty good player. We’ve got some of them, so that will make it fun. We have to improve, and we’ll be pretty good.”

The Obvious: On the defensive side, one of the major areas of emphasis by first-year defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a is the weight of his linemen, a weight number at 300-pounds or over.

The Not So Obvious: On his defensive linemen maintaining proper playing weight, “Coach K” recently said, “It’s whether you want to do it or not. I am a big stickler of that. I’ve learned that from one of the past coaches I’ve worked for on how important it was, so I’ve held my group accountable in regards to maintaining their weight and it shows on the field what they’re doing. It’s helped Conner (Murphy) a lot. I am not sure how much he’s added, but I have a specific goal for him, but he has to be plus or minus four pounds. He’s actually over by two pounds, which is really good.” 

The Obvious: One of the true freshmen who is more than living up to the hype is defensive end Drake Jackson.

Drake Jackson

The Not So Obvious: Of his special freshman defensive lineman, Coach Kauha’aha’a said, “Oh wow, Drake Jackson is a talented young man, grasping the defense. On Thursdays, Christian Rector has class, so Drake has a chance to run with the ‘1s’ and so he’s getting his feet wet and going against the ‘1’ O-line and holding his own. I mean the guy is a talented athlete, we all know that, but what’s separated him from some of the younger guys is him putting in the time mentally watching film, asking questions on the field and off the field, in the meeting room. That’s what’s getting Drake ahead.”

The Obvious: While spring practice competition for all positions is ongoing, the Trojans released the following season ticket announcement, which included a brief preview of the 2019 season in terms of schedule and individual headliners. 

The Not So Obvious: The season ticket release included the following paragraph: “The 2019 Trojans’ offense features a deep receiving corps (including Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown) and a stable of runners (such as Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp), along with 2018 starting quarterback JT Daniels.  USC’s defense is led by the likes of defensive linemen Christian Rector and Jay Tufele, inside linebackers John Houston Jr., Jordan Iosefa and Palaie Gaoteote IV and safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao.”

The Obvious: The Trojans no longer run out of the I-formation, which featured Heisman Trophy winning tailbacks Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, and Marcus Allen, yet in publications Trojans running backs are still listed as tailbacks.

Charles White

The Not So Obvious: The list of traditional USC tailbacks is long and illustrious, but to list today’s backs as traditional tailbacks, the O/NSO says it’s a bit of a misnomer. Yes, on occasion you will see an I-formation set or a something similar, but for the most part the running backs are offset next to the quarterback and not behind him.

The Obvious: Trojans’ talented sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga won’t play in Saturday’s scrimmage and the balance of spring ball, having had recent shoulder surgery for a broken collarbone, the same one he broke last October, but he is expected to be ready for August training camp.

Talanoa Hufanga

The Not So Obvious: Having broken his collarbone as a freshman, it reminds of the old saying, “If Talanoa didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.” So, the next question: Will a second collarbone break within a year foreshadow a chronic shoulder issue in the future? The good news is that the shoulder should be recovered in about eight weeks.

The Obvious: The Trojans will travel to Notre Dame Stadium in the fall to play the Irish in South Bend on Saturday, Oct. 12.

Notre Dame Stadium

The Not So Obvious:  One of last Saturday’s scrimmage standouts was redshirt freshman Markese Stepp (Indianapolis (Ind./Cathedral HS), who originally committed to Notre Dame his senior season. You can bet the Trojans’ defense is sure glad Markese didn’t sign with the Irish and won’t be facing this bulldozer when the Men of Troy travel back to the Midwest.

The Obvious: The current starting spring offensive tackles are Austin Jackson and Jalen McKenzie.

The Not So Obvious: While the defense has made a concerted effort this spring to dramatically improving the rush defense, Jackson and McKenzie are under the microscope. Saturday’s scrimmage will give another opportunity for this tandem to show their run blocking ability to spring backs to the outside. Of course, in Graham Harrell’s offense, it could be argued the No. 1 responsibility is pass blocking and keeping the Trojans’ quarterbacks upright.

Jalen McKenzie
Austin Jackson

The Obvious: The USC Trojans Coaches Clinic, open to coaches at all levels of football, is taking place this weekend on campus. 

The Not So Obvious: Besides Clay Helton and his staff, headline speakers for the clinic will include Rams’ head coach Sean McVay, Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, and New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen. If Nielsen’s name rings familiar with Trojans’ fans, it’s because he’s the same Ryan Nielsen that played on the Trojans’ defensive line 1998-2001. Of course, the O/NSO would be remiss by not adding that Ryan is the pride of Simi Valley (Calif.) Royal High, home of the Highlanders. Other speakers of note include Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, San Diego State head coach Rocky Long, New Mexico State head coach Bob Davie, and UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez.   

The Obvious: One of the great incoming Trojans’ freshmen is multi-sport star Drake London (Moorpark, Calif./Moorpark HS), who doubles as both a blue-chip football star and an elite basketball player.

Drake London

The Not So Obvious: While Drake (6-5, 205) won’t be coming to Troy until summer, his basketball skills were illustrated this season by averaging 29.2 points and 11.9 rebounds. In case you’ve forgotten his senior football season, London had 51 catches for 1,032 yards (20.2 avg.) with 11 touchdowns. He also ran the ball five times for 123 yards (24.6 avg.) and threw a 14-yard TD pass. 

The Obvious: And finally, this will be the final season for Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, legendary Trojans Marching Band director, and there will be plenty of celebrations honoring his final service, which ends in 2019. One of those celebrations will be one last Navy Pier Prep Rally in Chicago for the Notre Dame Game.

Navy Pier pep rally

The Not So Obvious: Dr. Bartner takes his last bow as director of the USC Concert Band at The Final Curtain on Sunday, April 28, in Bovard Auditorium at 3 p.m. Some of his favorite guest artists from past spring concerts will be there to reprise memorable performances, and the USC Concert Band alumni will join with the current group. If you are interested in showing your appreciation to his remarkable career, you can RSVP at: uscband.com/tickets

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.

More Articles By Greg