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O/NSO: Spring ball prognostication edition

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

The Obvious: The USC Trojans will begin spring practice this Tuesday, March 7, and it’s the hope of the program that when the 15 days of practice conclude, the foundation for what is expected to be a strong run at a Pac-12 title and an opportunity to make a legitimate run at a CFP “Final Four” invitation will be in the offering.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans will practice Tuesdays and Thursdays (3:15 p.m.) and Saturdays (10 a.m.) on campus with the exception of the annual Coliseum Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 (noon). The Men of Troy will take their annual “spring break” from practicing the week of March 13-18.

The Obvious: All spring practices will be open to the general public.

The Not So Obvious: With the welcomed open attendance policy, Helton’s Trojans will have plenty of cardinal and gold fan evaluators, as it pertains to the competition and depth chart. As a public service to those that can make it to the practices and like to keep the O/NSO accountable, and for those that can’t be on campus to watch the proceedings, here is the O/NSO prognostications of what to expect by the end of the spring practice sessions.

The Obvious: Rose Bowl hero and 2017 Heisman Trophy frontrunner Sam Darnold (6-foot-4, 225 pounds, RS So.) will return at quarterback (photo above), but the big battle in spring will be his backups.

The Not So Obvious: You know the candidates: Jalen Greene (6-1, 200, RS Jr.), Matt Fink (6-3, 195, RS Fr.), and Jack Sears (6-3, 195, Fr.). With such high team expectations, could any of the aforementioned backup candidates keep the offense going if – heaven forbid – Darnold goes down for any length of time? The feeling here is that when it’s all said and done, the first choice for the backup spot will be Jalen Greene. That’s not to say that Fink or Sears couldn’t emerge as next in line after Darnold, but Greene has the experience and the mobility to fit in the best under the current offensive system. Post Spring Practice Prediction: Greene will finish as Darnold’s No. 2 heading into training camp in August.

The Obvious: The Trojans tailback situation will be led by Ronald Jones ll (6-1, 195, Jr.), truly one of America’s most explosive collegiate running backs.

The Not So Obvious: Jones is a lock as the starting running back. However, there is the question regarding of whom backs up RoJo? You know the spring candidates: Aca’Cedric Ware (6-0, 195, Jr.), Dominic Davis (5-10, 180 Jr.), and James Tolland IV (5-11, 195, RS Sr.). All have their own unique style and have been proven to be productive when called upon. There’s no question mark about the talent, but the pecking order will become interesting with new running backs coach Deland McCullough now officially onboard. Who will be RoJo’s backup?  Post Spring Practice Prediction: Ware will be next up behind RoJo.

The Obvious: The Trojans will have an interesting spring in the sense that we will see if the fullback will get a more dynamic role in the offense.

The Not So Obvious: Reuben Peters (6-0, 225, RS Jr.) is considered the starter; however, there is a sense that perhaps there could be some experimentation with redshirt running back Vavae Malepeai (6-0, 190, RS Fr.), who could be used in sort of a Stanley Havili role. You remember Stanley, right? Havili had the ability to run, catch, and block. It would seem that Malepeai is too good a prospect just to wait his turn behind Ronald Jones lll, Aca’Cedric Ware, and Dominic Davis. Maybe it won’t happen, but it is a viable thought. Post Spring Practice Prediction: Peters will finish spring ball as the No. 1 fullback.

The Obvious: The Trojans will be looking to fill big voids at wide receiver, as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers both have departed for next month’s NFL draft.

The Not So Obvious: Remember the outcry that Clay Helton was accused of recruiting too many wide receivers? Well, it certainly looks like it was the right thing to do. With Rose Bowl star Deontay Burnett (6-0, 170, Jr.) returning, there are two starting slots open along with plenty of need for depth with the departures of valued backups De’Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney. There is, however, no shortage of candidates: Jalen Greene (6-1, 200, RS Jr.), Michael Pittman Jr. (6-4, 210, So.), Trevon Sidney (5-11, 170, RS Fr.), Velus Jones (6-0, 185, RS Fr.), Josh Imatorbhebhe (6-2, 210, RS Fr.), and Tyler Vaughns (6-2, 180, RS Fr.). With Steven Mitchell Jr. (5-10, 190, RS Sr.) is still rehabbing from knee surgery, the above will battle for a spring starting spot. Post Spring Practice Prediction:  Vaughns and Pittman will join Deontay Burnett as the Trojans starting three receivers heading into training camp in August.

The Obvious: With the departure of tight end Taylor McNamara, there are talented candidates to fill the position, which was resurrected last season with Sam Darnold making a concerted effort to finds his tight ends.

The Not So Obvious: The competitors vying for the starting tight spot are Tyler Petite (6-5, 235, Jr.), Daniel Imatorbhebhe (6-4, 240, RS So.), and Cary Angeline (6-6, 230, RS Fr.). There is little argument that of the three mentioned that Imtorbhebhe had the biggest impact in 2016, becoming one of Darnold’s favorite targets and the odds-on favorite in spring to emerge the starter. Petite needs to improve his ball-catching consistency, but the real intrigue is going to be redshirt freshman Angeline. It wouldn’t be a reach that although he doesn’t figure to start, he could end up next in line. The kid has the tools. Post Spring Practice Prediction: Daniel Imatorbhebhe will be the starter beginning training camp in August.

The Obvious: If there are top shelf question marks regarding the 2017 season, the offensive line is right there at the top.

The Not So Obvious: Having to replace two departed All-Pac-12 tackles and an All-Pac-12 second-team guard (Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler, Damien Mama) will come under intense scrutiny. Because of Sam Darnold’s ability to escape in the pocket, he is his own surrogate extra lineman protecting himself. There is no question that veteran center Nico Falah (6-4, 280, RS Sr.) and right guard Viane Talamaivao (6-2, 315, Sr.) will be starters. But who plugs in the other positions? Offensive line coach Neil Callaway has his work cut out, but he has options. Highly experienced tackle Chuma Edoga (6-4, 290, Jr.) returns and he’s expected to man a tackle position – initially left tackle. Because senior Toa Lobendahn (6-3, 295, Sr.) – a strong candidate to start at guard or tackle depending on his physical condition – is out recovering from knee surgery, it leaves candidates Clayton Johnston (6-6, 285, RS So.), Roy Hemsley (6-5, 310, RS So.), Frank Martin ll (6-5, 310, RS Fr.), Jordan Austin (6-5, 300, RS Jr.), and veteran Chris Brown (6-5, 300, RS Jr.) to have at it.

To the eyes of the O/NSO, the wild card is Brown. He is big and has experience from last season having started two games and can play guard or tackle. A wild card could be the possible return of sophomore tackle E.J. Price (6-6, 300, So). We don’t see the named starting offensive line being the one that will start against Western Michigan; however, for the sake of a spring argument…Post Spring Practice Prediction: Chuma Edoga (LT), Chris Brown (LG),  Nico Falah (C), Viane Talamaivao (RG), Roy Hemsley (RT).

Bonus Post Spring Practice Prediction: In the fall, the O/NSO will give a selection of Chuma Edoga (LT), Chris Brown (LG), Nico Falah (C), Viane Talamaivao (RG), Toa Lobendahn (RT). Lobendahn could flip positions with Brown.     

The Obvious: Once again, the defensive line will be a major topic, especially with the departure of All-Pac-12 nose tackle and Rose Bowl Defensive MVP Stevie Tu’ikolovatu to the NFL.

The Not So Obvious: The good news along the defensive line is that defensive end and junior all-star candidate Rasheem Green (6-5, 280, Jr.) returns. Malik Dorton (6-2, 280, RS Jr.) also returns at defensive tackle. The big question: Who replaces Steve T.? The major candidates will be senior Josh Fotu (6-3, 290, Sr.) and Kenny Bigelow Jr. (6-3, 295, RS SR.). Kenny, of course, has had a Trojans career full of star-crossed injuries, but he has the potential. One player looking to make a name for himself is early freshman enrollee Marlon Tuipulotu (6-3, 295, Fr.). As the spring progresses, watch out for this man-child. Also keep an eye open to DE Christian Rector (6-5, 275, RS So.). Another young prospect is DT redshirt freshman Liam Jimmons (6-5, 280, RS Fr.). Post Spring Practice Prediction: Fotu (NT) will join Green (DE), and Dorton (DT) as the down linemen heading into training camp in August.

The Obvious: Defensively, the Trojans are in relatively good shape in terms of their core overall linebacking crew, led by junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith, a 2017 all-star candidate.

The Not So Obvious: Graduated senior inside backer and captain Michael Hutchings will be missed, especially his leadership and experience. The good news is that outside linebacker starters Uchenna Nwoso (6-3, 235, Sr.) and Porter Gustin (6-5, 260, Jr.) return, and that is a huge plus. Now the big question: Who replaces the dependable Hutchings on the inside to play along Cameron Smith? Two names to keep an eye on should be Jordan Iosefa (6-2, 215, So.) and John Houston Jr. (6-3, 220, RS So.). Iosefa, in particular, looks ready to make a determined move to start. Before predictions, play close attention to freshmen outside linebackers Connor Murphy (6-7, 255, So.) and Oluwole Betiku Jr. (6-3, 250, So.), both of whom will be in the mix if their positions aren’t changed during spring experimentation. Olajuwon Tucker (6-3, 230, Sr.) figures to return to the team, so he could be an outside backer factor. Post Spring Practice Prediction: Iosefa to be in the starting group along with Cameron Smith on the inside with last season’s outside starters, Gustin and Nwosu, holding serve.

The Obvious: The Trojans secondary returns starting junior corner Iman “Biggie” Marshall (6-1, 200, Jr.), free safety Marvell Tell lll (6-3, 190, Jr.), and 2016 co-starting strong safety Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, RS Sr.).

The Not So Obvious: Okay, the O/NSO couldn’t bear to say who is missing. Perhaps you’ve heard of All-American Adoree’ Jackson, who has left early for the NFL? Let’s cut to the chase. Who replaces A.J.? Although he had a typical up and down learning freshman season, the logical candidate would appear to be sophomore Jack Jones (5-11, 170, So.). Jones has all the gifts but lacks experience, and that was exposed in the Rose Bowl. However, Jackie is one tough kid with a lot of confidence, and he figures to benefit from spring ball as much as any player on the team. It wouldn’t surprise us if experienced junior Ajene Harris (5-11, 190, RS Jr.) gets the starting nod ahead of Jones. There are also some up and coming youngsters that could surprise this spring. Keep your eyes trained on freshmen corner Keyshawn “Pie” Young (5-11, 175, So.) and freshman safety Jamel Cook (6-3, 185, RS Fr.) is a good one. Post Spring Practice Prediction: A surprise, Ajene Harris to join Iman Marshall at the corners along with returning starting free safety Marvell Tell lll and co-starter Chris Hawkins entering training camp in August.

The Obvious: The Trojans are looking for a placekicker, as the status of Rose Bowl hero Matt Boermeester’s cardinal and gold career is on hold after being dismissed from the team for a school “code of conduct” issue.

The Not So Obvious: Generally, not much attention is paid to placekicking during spring. This could the exception. The logical candidate to replace Boermeester is Michael Brown (6-2, 195, RS Fr.), who has zero experience. Brown is on scholarship, so he is the clear choice to end the spring as the starter. Post Spring Practice Prediction:  If Boermeester does not return, Brown will be the kicking answer heading into training camp in August.

The Obvious: The Trojans return starting punter Chris Tilbey (6-5, 205, RS Jr.).

The Not So Obvious: Tilbey figures to be secure in his punting spot, but Reid Budrovich (5-11, 185, RS Jr.) will challenge. Post Spring Practice Prediction: Tilbey. Too much experience and talent and will be the man both entering training camp in August and during the regular season.

The Obvious: And finally, no need for spring ball. The positions are set in jello.

The Not So Obvious: However, one thing is certain. There will be experimentation both in position groups and some complete switches either by choice or request. This is always one of the great surprises of spring. With the return of Sam Darnold, this is one spring that any surprises will be cushioned by the return of No. 14.

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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