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O/NSO: Spring projections edition

The Obvious: The USC Trojans will open spring practice on Tuesday, March 6, in preparation for the 2018 regular season.

The Not So Obvious: 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 – 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 Obvious: The second biggest focal point of spring ball figures to be the progress of the offensive line.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: There should be some interesting competition at running back after the early departure of Ronald Jones ll to the NFL.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Vavai 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 Obvious: The Trojans will have young and skilled wide receivers in camp and some others that will be pushing their way into the mix.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: A position that lacked depth, the tight end spot has some diverse and talented returnees.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: 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 Obvious: The Trojans should be strong at inside linebacker with the return of senior Cameron Smith and junior John Houston.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: The most glaring position vacancy on defense besides Rasheem Green is the replacement of All-Pac-12 outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, a no-brainer NFL draft selection in April.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: The Trojans will return corners Iman Marshall and Jack Jones.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: In terms of the safety positions, the Trojans will be looking to replace co-captain Chris Hawkins, who has graduated and will give the NFL a shot.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: The Trojans are in good shape in terms of punting and placekicking, as senior Reid Budrovich and sophomore Chase McGrath, respectively, return.

The Not So Obvious: 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 Obvious: And finally, the big key and unknown in the spring ball is the probability of position changes.

The Not So Obvious: 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.

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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