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O/NSO: Buckle up edition

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

The Obvious: After two previous days of spring practice workouts in helmets and shorts, the USC Trojans will return to Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields on Saturday (10 a.m.), and they’ll be wearing their full battle attire in what promises to provide excitement, energy, and some intimidatingly loud hitting.

The Not So Obvious: For those Trojans fans coming to Saturday morning’s practice, it should be noted that while Men of Troy will be “hitting” during their first day in pads, head coach Clay Helton (photo above) announced after Thursday’s practice that the team won’t be scrimmaging. The Trojans will hold their first scrimmage on their sixth practice, which will be Saturday, March 25. Unless there is a change, that first spring scrimmage will be held on campus at 10 a.m.

The Obvious: While much of the attention of the 2017 Trojans is on sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, Clay Helton has some very important – and in some cases – large holes to fill.

The Not So Obvious: For the most part, the first two days of spring ball were designed to shake off the rust, see that everybody lines up correctly, work on timing, and to begin the important task of teaching fundamentals while rebuilding the offensive line (void of three former All-Pac-12 starters), focusing in on a new wave of young receivers (looking to replace the likes of departed stars JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers), and scrutinizing eager prospects who hope to fill the rather large shoes of NFL-bound nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. There are talented bodies, but will they fit and will the cream rise to the top?

The Obvious: In just the first couple of practices, it’s clear that Trojans Heisman hopeful quarterback Sam Darnold has complete mastery of the offense.

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO sense is that in the two practices we watched, Sammy knows exactly where the ball is going at all times and his precision in running the offense will be an increased nightmare for opposing defenses. While Darnold will make any offensive line look better than it is, he’ll still need time to survey a defense as he adeptly sidesteps exasperated defenders. The good news is that it appears he’ll have a more athletic offensive line to help out the offensive cause.

The Obvious: Clay Helton said this week that his 2017 offensive line is talented and quicker than last season’s unit because they are carrying less weight (295-300) per man than last season’s large group of men, headed by massive Zach Banner (350).

The Not So Obvious: Helton said with a quicker line, the Trojans can do some things that last season’s offensive line could not do for the obvious reasons. Last season’s line was adept at zone blocking, and it appears in the early going that this season’s quicker line probably will be able to do more pulling and trapping, which should be good for a predominately outside runner like Ronald Jones ll. 

The Obvious: Junior Chuma Edoga figures to start at either left or right tackle.

The Not So Obvious: During a post-practice interview, Edoga was asked if the rumors were true that he thought strongly considered transferring after last season because he was disgruntled, Chuma said he had some issues that he needed to clear up that didn’t have to do with football.

The Obvious: There are still rumblings this week that sophomore offensive tackle E.J. Price – who has not participated with the team since early last season because of undisclosed reasons but is enrolled in USC’s spring semester – might at some point return to the team.

The Not So Obvious: According to fellow Georgian, close friend, and offensive tackle Chuma Edoga, Price wants to return to his cardinal and gold teammates. After Thursday’s practice, Edoga emotionally told a gathering of press, “He (Price) really wants to come back, really wants to come back!” The O/NSO believes that Price would have transferred by now for somebody’s spring practice if he didn’t want to still be a Trojan.

The Obvious: The 2017 Trojans Spring Media Guide is out, and there are lots of quotes and comments from head coach Clay Helton.

The Not So Obvious:  Regarding the state of the team entering 2017, Helton says, “We understand the expectations at USC are high, especially after the successful season we had last year. We welcome those expectations. Just like every year, we will enter the 2017 season with the expectation of winning the Pac-12 championship. We have a group of players and coaches here that can do that. This is the 125th USC football team and we expect great things this season.”

The Obvious: With the return of Sam Darnold at quarterback, Clay Helton expects the Trojans offense to be productive, but there are still important holes to fill.

The Not So Obvious. In the spring media guide, Helton says, “I loved how our offense progressed last year and that’s a credit to Tee (Martin) and our offensive coaches and players. I look forward to more of the same in 2017. We strive to be balanced on offense and take advantage of what the defense gives us. We have some very talented skill position players who can get yards on the ground or through the air, but we will have to develop our big men in a hurry this year if we want to win a conference championship.”

The Obvious: The Trojans have a deep and talented array of running backs.

The Not So Obvious: In giving an overall assessment of his ball carriers, Clay Helton comments, “We have a very potent and deep backfield, with some veteran, gifted runners in Ronald (Jones), Aca’Cedric (Ware), and Dominic (Davis). Each can be a difference-maker in a game. We also have some very talented youngsters who I’m anxious to watch perform.”

The Obvious: The Trojans have a lot to do in not only rebuilding the offensive line but providing depth, as well.

The Not So Obvious: In the spring media guide, Clay Helton gives his overview of the offensive line, which looks to replace three all-star starters. The coach says, “With the personnel losses we had here, there will be a very competitive atmosphere for playing time within this unit. As we did last year, we will train players to perform at several positions. Viane (Talavaivao) and Nico (Falah) will be the senior leaders of the line. There are a number of other players with experience under their belts, like Toa (Lobendahn), Chuma (Edoga) and Chris (Brown), and there are also some young and new players from whom we expect big things. Whoever emerges will have some huge shoes to fill.”

The Obvious: If the Trojans are going to seriously challenge for a CFP invitation and win the Pac-12, they’ll need a championship defense, and all eyes will also be on Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

The Not So Obvious: Clay Helton says, “We were very pleased that Clancy was able to get our defense to perform last year like it did when he was here previously. We expect even more success defensively in 2017 as our players enter the second year in his system. He develops tough defenses that put constant pressure on the opponent, a style that our players enjoy playing.”

The Obvious: The foundation of the defense will come from a rebuilt D-line that will need to control the line of scrimmage.

The Not So Obvious: Helton says, “Like with our offensive line, the defensive front will have to overcome the loss of key personnel and therefore there will be great competition for playing time. Rasheem (Green) took a big leap forward last season, and he will be our veteran leader up front. I expect our other older players to step up here, along with some talented newcomers.”

The Obvious: The Trojans will be looking to replace team captain and inside linebacker Michael Hutchings, who has competed his eligibility.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the linebacking situation, Clay Helton says, We are very fortunate to return a veteran like Cameron (Smith). He is as good as they get. But we need to fill a void at the other inside spot. We have a number of promising young player who will compete to do that.”

The Obvious: Despite the loss of corner Adoree’ Jackson to the NFL draft, the Trojans do have a very talented and savvy group of veterans returning to the secondary.

The Not So Obvious: Looking over the secondary talent for 2017, Clay Helton says, “We’re lucky to have Iman (Marshall), Chris (Hawkins), and Marvell (Tell lll) back and anchoring our secondary, along with Ajene (Harris) and Jonathan (Lockett). But it will be challenging to replace the dynamic playmaking ability that Adoree’ had. The competition will be intense to do that, and I’m anxious to see how it plays out among our returnees and our signees.”

The Obvious: One of the most important replacement players on the team and probably the least noticed will be transfer snapper Damon Johnson, who enters SC as an athletically designated freshman although he attended Citrus JC where he did not play football.

The Not So Obvious: Johnson certainly won’t get the spring scrutiny of the offensive and defensive line competition, but his time will come during the regular season, and Special Teams Coach John Baxter is hoping that Damon will be as flawless as his four-year predecessor, Zach Smith.

The Obvious: And finally, the Trojans offense of yesteryear was once described in media guides as the “I-formation” but is now described in the 2017 spring media guide as “multiple.”

The Not So Obvious: Ironically, the Trojans of yesteryear were also known as a 5-2 defense, and that’s exactly how it’s described in this spring’s media guide. As the O/NSO says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Well, at least on defensive terminology they do.

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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