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O/NSO: Dwindling days edition

The Obvious: With the sands of spring football practice rapidly dwindling to a precious few – four days to be exact – the USC Trojans will again have an open-to-the-public scrimmage on Saturday (10:15 am) on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields, and there’s still guarded hope that the two inexperienced quarterback competitors, sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears (photos above), will have improved outings compared to their previously inconsistent and underwhelming scrimmage performances.

The Not So Obvious: Head coach Clay Helton has said from the get-go that there would be no quarterback decision when spring ball ends next Saturday. That being said, there should be a sense of urgency for one of the competing quarterbacks to at least separate from the other. Leading up to this Saturday’s scrimmage, which figures to be the scrimmage of the spring, neither quarterback has been able to demonstrate downfield consistency, which just happens to be a major attribute of incoming freshman prodigy JT Daniels, who is expected to arrive in the summer. While Daniels won’t be playing in Saturday’s scrum but is expected to in attendance, one has to wonder if his presence just adds additional pressure for Fink and Sears to be effective. And, BTW, the Swim with Mike fundraiser will also be taking place during and after Saturday’s intense scrimmage at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center next door.

The Obvious: The unspectacular performances of the quarterbacks at this point has been well documented, and you have to give credit to first-year quarterback coach Bryan Ellis when he took responsibility earlier this week by saying, “It’s on me right now with the quarterbacks, I’ve got to get them to the point where they are making decisions faster and making plays. We will continue to push them, come out every day and work hard.”

The Not So Obvious: Fair or unfair, scrutiny is also turning towards Ellis. The former Alabama-Birmingham quarterback has the complete confidence of Clay Helton and Ellis talks a good game, even sounding at times like a grizzled veteran. Getting paid the big bucks, you just know Ellis wants a happy spring ending for both Fink and Sears. The reality is that nobody was expecting the second coming of Sam Darnold this spring, but nobody thought that the young throwers would be having the struggles they have endured up to this point.

The Obvious: There is the general consensus at this point that the Trojans’ defense is well ahead of the offense, and one of the reasons is senior Pac-12 middle linebacker Cameron Smith.

The Not So Obvious: Asked to assess if the defense is as good as it appears at this stage of spring ball, Smith said, “I think we’re not comfortable, but we’d much rather be where we are right now than where we were two or three years ago when Coach P was just coming in. I feel good, but we have so much more room to grow for some younger guys. For us right now, we have to keep growing the younger guys right now and adding them into playing the game, as well. We have to have all 11 guys playing the game. I think we’re feeling good, but we still have a lot of room to grown.”

The Obvious: For observers of the spring defense, one could argue that different units rate as the best depending on that particular practice day.

The Not So Obvious: Asked about the strength of the defense at this point, Cameron Smith said, “Besides the X’s and O’s and plays, the personality of the defense is what a lot of teams would ask for. We all love to win and love to win so bad, and we’re so competitive. I think that the best part of this team is that the defense wants to win so bad. Everybody wants to compete all the time. We always talk about the little things and try to be perfect on every snap. I think that what we want to do is be perfect, that’s what we’re going to reach for. We’ve got guys that can do it. We all know what we want to do and where we want to be. We have to keep pushing each other and keep growing.”

The Obvious: There are a number of young players that could really have an impact on the 2018 season.

The Not So Obvious: Asked to name and comment on a young defender, Cameron Smith said, “Young, young, I think a big player for us this year is (redshirt freshman) Jay Tufele (6-3, 315). He’s been really playing well these last four weeks and he’s grown so much. He just wants to cause havoc. I think he adds another player that can play the D-line for us. (True freshman safety) Talanoa (Hufanga) is really playing well, and he has a lot to learn as does anybody trying to learn our defense. It’s a good thing that he came in really early to learn the defense. I like what he’s doing and doing everything the coaches ask him to do.” 

The Obvious: Much of the credit for rise of the Trojans’ defense has to go to defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who enters his third season as Clay Helton’s DC.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding where the defense has improved the most this spring, Pendergast said, “I think continuity. We wanted to shave some things from what we were doing and simplify things and play faster. I think anytime you can have over half your guys coming back with a lot of experience going into their third year, they don’t have to think about hearing the call. I think it has allowed a good abundance of those guys to really improve in their technique, and I can see that as probably the biggest difference in all three levels of the defense. Their technique has really improved.”

The Obvious: Sam Darnold recently switched a plane flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, so he could be back early to throw passes to his USC teammates that were presenting themselves to pro scouts this week.

The Not So Obvious: If you had any qualms that Darnold isn’t a team leader or wonder how the unassuming quarterback garnered such respect from his Trojan teammates, the switching of flights is all you need to know. And don’t think that this little item went unnoticed by the Cleveland Browns and perhaps current team members of the Browns who were wondering about No. 14’s leadership skills.

The Obvious: There has been wide speculation just how much of an effect the return of coach Tim Drevno will have on the Trojans’ running game. With the Trojans using two backs and the quarterbacks taking some snaps under center may be an answer.

The Not So Obvious: Helton talked about the influence of Tim Drevno so far on the offense “We’re going under center a little bit more, using more 22-personnel with two backs. And he can help the RB’s understand the whole run game and how it coordinates with the other parts of the offense. Ced Ware commented to me the other day about how he’s learning about the o-line and how everything works together.” The true test will come during the season when the Trojans need a short-yardage first down or an inside the three-yard line situation.

The Obvious: Formerly retired Trojans defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow is transferring to the University of West Virginia.

The Not So Obvious: Although we certainly wish Kenny all the best, the O/NSO again points out that the most decorated players coming out of high school doesn’t always translate to success at the collegiate level. From competition to injury to academic challenges – not to mention adjustment to being on your own – anything can happen once a player leaves his high school nest.

The Obvious: The 2018 CAA World Congress of Sports is scheduled for April 17-18 in Los Angeles.

The Not So Obvious: Among the guest speakers will be Trojans Athletic Director Lynn Swann and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.  

The Obvious: And finally, folks are awaiting word of the official announcement that the Trojans will again open a season by traveling to the Dallas area to face Alabama in 2020.

The Not So Obvious: While strolling through the Dallas Airport this past week, the O/NSO saw an Alabama fan wearing a new crimson shirt with the writing, “We just got ourselves another.” Of course, it was a reference to yet another national championship. Them that has gits.

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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