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O/NSO: Hindsight spring practice prediction edition

The Obvious: Prior to the commencement of spring practice, the O/NSO went out on the proverbial limb and predicted what would happen and what the depth chart would look like at the end of the 15-day spring practice cycle.

The Not So Obvious: Well, showing absolute no concern about embarrassing one’s knowledge of USC football and its personnel, let’s review what was predicted and what actually happened, although there was never a printed depth chart at the conclusion of spring practice to make an official comparison. In some respects, finishing spring ball is survival of the fittest and can distort an actual unofficial depth chart.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote,The obvious focal point of spring ball, which will be open and free to the general public, will be the quarterback competition. Can either of the current competing quarterback candidates – sophomore Matt Fink, considered the lead candidate, or redshirt freshman Jack Sears (photo above) – be an effective replacement for Sam Darnold? The truth is that while there will be scrutiny between the two quarterbacks, the real competition will be in fall training camp when heralded incoming freshman JT Daniels makes his appearance. So, while it will be intriguing watching Fink and Sears compete and one possibly being the starter against UNLV on Sept. 1, the O/NSO won’t get too worked up on the final spring practice depth chart, which could very well be the standard “or” between the spring QB competitors. The O/NSO projects Fink as the starter against UNLV, but all bets are off the rest of the way.”

The Not So Obvious: If a game were to be played tomorrow and all things being equal between Fink and Sears, Fink would get the starting nod in the Sept. 1 opener against UNLV, having a sliver’s edge of experience and that 51-yard TD dash against Oregon State branded into the brain of the Trojans’ coaching staff. However, the O/NSO would expect that Sears would see action against UNLV. The great wild card is that both quarterbacks might actually be better in a game than they’ve shown in practice. Of course, the wilder wild card is the real possibility that incoming freshman JT Daniels could make a UNLV appearance at some point or even start, which may not seem as outlandish as it might seem.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “The reality is this will be an experienced offensive line that may be more set than in flux. The key “open” position is at center, and the replacement of workmanlike graduate Nico Falah. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it figures that senior Toa Lobendahn will be the starter when the Trojans kickoff against UNLV. It would take a seismic shift to not see the start offensive line as sophomore Austin Jackson at left tackle, senior Chris Brown at left guard, sophomore Andrew Vorhees at right guard, and veteran senior Chuma Edoga at right tackle. The intrigue will be the backups at all positions. There will be special interest in the backup center competition between sophomore Brett Neilon and early enrolled freshman Justin Dedich. With the inconsistent performance of last season’s offensive line, there will be some attention paid to veteran offensive line coach Neil Callaway, who will be viewed with interest over the physicality progress of the O-line. The O/NSO projects a spring-ending starting five of Jackson, Brown, Lobendahn, Vorhees, and Edoga.

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO prediction of the starting five at the end of spring ball appears to be accurate, the only blemish being the fact that Lobendahn was held out of contact to make sure his tender knees wouldn’t be subjected to potential injury and Vorhees didn’t finish the spring due to some “minor” knee surgery. There were some individual bright spots in the young centers, Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich, and backup tackle Clayton Johnston made a big push to compete at left tackle with Jackson and redshirt tackle Jalen McKenzie showed promise in a backup tackle role.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “Just when it appeared that it wouldn’t be shocking if sophomore Stephen Carr isn’t Jones early replacement comes the news that Stephen will miss all of spring ball due to a herniated disc. An issue of this nature could be prolonged into fall camp and the regular season.  Certainly, this put the running back competition under greater scrutiny. Waiting in the wings, however, senior Aca’Cedric Ware (photo above) and sophomore Vavae Malepeai, both of whom are very capable of carrying the ball. Spring tailback depth could be a real issue. Another big question mark is just who will be coaching the running backs, and will that person be able to make the big impact that former running backs coach Deland McCullough was able to accomplish? Originally, the O/NSO predicted that Carr would be the starter as long as he stays healthy, but now all bets are off for now. At least through the end of spring ball, the O/NSO projects it’s a coin flip whether Ware or Malepeai is named the starter.

The Not So Obvious: By the end of spring, both Ware and Malepeai showed they could do the job and both improved upon their various question marks. The O/NSO pre-spring forecast remains intact. The wild card come August training camp is will sophomore Stephen Carr, who oozes talent, be able to go full strength after back surgery? If the Trojans are truly committed to a big emphasis on running the ball, they will need all three tailbacks.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “Sure, it figures that two of the wide receiver spots are pretty much in stone. It’s hard to imagine that sophomore Tyler Vaughns and junior Michael Pittman will lose their spots after spring ball. While the real competition will be at the slot position and replacing the underrated Deontay Burnett, the O/NSO will go on a short plank and say that the competition here won’t be settled until explosive incoming freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown arrives in summer. St. Brown is so good that it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him either start or become an early season starter. Keep an eye on both sophomore Randall Grimes and redshirt freshman Trevon Sidney to push for playing time as they showcase their skills during March and April. The O/NSO projects the three receivers ending spring will be Vaughns, Pittman, and Trevon Sidney come the conclusion of spring.

The Not So Obvious: No doubt Vaughns and Pittman showed they are quite the twin threats. Sophomore Velus Jones Jr. certainly made some heads turn with his speed and probably moved ahead of Trevon Sidney, who had a productive spring. However, the arrival of freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown remains a threat to be strongly in the mix after August training camp.  

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “Despite all the competition, it says here that if junior Daniel Imatorbhebhe is healthy, he will be the starter by spring’s end. That’s not to say that Imatorbhebhe won’t be pushed by veteran senior Tyler Petite or the oncoming sophomore talent of Josh Falo, who really came on late in the season and had a huge catch in the Pac-12 championship. The O/NSO projects that Imatorbhebhe will be the man…if he can stay healthy.

The Not So Obvious: Well, Imatorbhebhe wasn’t healthy enough to actually participate, but it did allow Falo to really be part of the mix and with Petite out nursing an injury, Falo rose to the occasion, especially towards the end of spring ball.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “The biggest question regarding the defensive line actually is will Kenechi Udeze be returning as the D-line coach? Thus far, no news is good news, so the O/NSO will go with the fact that Udeze is returning. “BKU” will have plenty of talent to deal with. The big question will be the replacement for the early departure of Rasheem Green and who will fill that spot? In fact, there may be no bigger competition on the team than filling Green’s position. It figures that senior Malik Dorton will be the first shot and Malik really showed progress during last season when spelling for Green. However, don’t count out sophomore Jay Tufele, who has huge potential. It figures that sophomore Brandon Pili will be the incumbent at nose tackle, but then let’s not forget the return of sophomore Marlon Tuipulotu if he is available to compete this spring after back surgery. Perhaps the most intriguing player will be the placement of junior Christian Rector, who could be a jack of all trades. The wild card in the competition in the pit is JC transfer Caleb Tremblay, who could change things around with an impressive spring performance. When spring ball concludes, the O/NSO projects the down three as Dorton, Pili, and Rector, but that’s certainly not set in stone.

The Not So Obvious: No reason to believe that Dorton, Pili, and Rector were not where the O/NSO thought they would be by the end of spring. Rector is sort of the wild card in that he can seemingly line up in a number of D-line spots. Tuipulotu was held out of action to continue his rehab from surgery, so it gave some opportunity to transfer Tremblay to display his talents. The JC transfer started strong but found out that playing at a high level of D-1 ball is a long-term progression, and Tufele will certainly be part of the main mix.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “The key here is not whether returning co-captain Smith will hold on to his starting spot, but can sophomore Levi Jones push Houston to the point of supplanting him in the middle? Jones has plenty of talent, but he will have to clearly outplay Houston to leap over him in the depth chart by spring’s end. The O/NSO projects that the inside linebackers at the conclusion of spring will be (drum roll) Smith and Houston.

The Not So Obvious: No change here. Both Smith and Houston didn’t lose a beat. In fact, Houston looks to have gained some much-needed girth. As for Jones, he will be in the mix participating, and the getting better but not quite there yet.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “So, who will replace Nwosu? Well, one option would be to take talented junior Jordan Isosefa and play him opposite of senior returner Porter Gustin. Bookends of Isosefa and Gustin would be formidable for any USC opponent. The question would their backups. Although the Trojans likely had the best Class of 2018 linebacking recruits in the country, can any of those ballyhooed freshmen linebackers actually be ready to contribute in the fall? One “veteran” player who is on the spot is junior Oluwole Betiku, who needs to prove that he is ready to contribute on a more consistent basis. Another player that needs to either step up or be auditioned on the defensive line is junior Connor Murphy. The time is now for Murphy to prove he can be in the mix. The O/NSO projects the outside backers at the conclusion of spring ball being Isosefa and Gustin.

The Not So Obvious: No change with Gustin and Isoefa, who had to leave spring ball late in the cycle with a knee issue but is expected back come August. The big surprise was the play of true freshman outside linebacker Kana’i Mauga, who really showed promise – although raw – on the outside. As for Murphy’s conversion to the D-line, Conner is still adjusting and needs to take the next step by playing consistently.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “While senior Marshall and junior Jones figures to be the starters at the start of spring ball, that doesn’t mean they will end up there either by position or by performance. There has been talk that Marshall will be given the opportunity to show what he can do as a safety, which would open up one of the corner spots. Secondary coach Ronnie Bradford has his work cut out for him and no question that Bradford, too, is under the microscope after last season’s inconsistent secondary performance. Honestly, it’s really anybody’s guess who the final corner starters will be although look for senior Isaiah Langley to be in the mix as a starter. In terms of the nickel spot, that position is owned by senior Ajene Harris, who has shown signs of big-play episodes. The O/NSO projects that the corners will be Marshall and Jones with Harris as the nickel.

The Not So Obvious: This projection didn’t quite end up 100 percent. Marshall improved and matured greatly, and Harris has that look of a veteran that could challenge for post-season honors. However, the great disappointment was the absence of Jack Jones, who was held out to work on academics. Jones’ absence allowed a number of players to really show promise, and the heartwarming comeback of senior Jonathan Lockett should send a message to Jones to be ready to compete upon his return.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “It figures that senior Marvell Tell lll, a 2018 all-star candidate, will man one of the safety spots, but who will be his partner at the other safety spot? There is certainly no lack of candidates, but the lead candidate for Hawkins spot would be sophomore headhunter Bubba Bolden. If healthy and able to participate, look for freshman Isaiah Pola-Mao to challenge, as well. The O/NSO projects the safety starters after the spring game will be Tell and Bolden.

The Not So Obvious: As predicted, the safety starters are Tell and Bolden. Tell is a true All-America candidate. The notable surprise was the performances of true freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga, who drew comparison to Trojans’ legendary All-American Troy Polamalu at the same stage of their careers.

The Obvious: Prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “As per each spring ball, you really don’t see much in terms of special teams competition as it applies to punting and placekicking. The O/NSO projects the starters will remain the same with Budrovich and McGrath.

The Not So Obvious: McGrath and Budrovich remain the starters.                     

The Obvious: And finally, prior to spring ball, the O/NSO wrote, “While the Trojans have a super recruiting class arriving in the summer, spring ball will be like positioning the horses into the gate before the bell rings to start the 2018 race. Perhaps the biggest question for Trojan fans is where will the annual spring game be held? Good or bad, the O/NSO projects that the spring game will be held in Loker Stadium.

The Not So Obvious: Because of a lack of promotion, Loker Stadium was workable for the final spring practice. The O/NSO believes that the final practice – not a game or a prolonged scrimmage – could have been played at the StubHub Center, El Camino JC, or Orange Coast JC. The attendance of around 800 fans reflected the lack of promotion and media push.

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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