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Give 3 things that have stood out to you so far in fall camp.
- The availability of Cameron Smith. Coming into camp there was no bigger question mark than Smith, who was coming off knee surgery and didn’t take part in any of the summer player-run-practices so there was no way to judge his readiness. Not only has Smith been out there every day but his participation is being steadily increased and he even took part during the contact portions of the full pads practice on Monday. So far so good.
- The impact of Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. There was a lot of celebrating when the news came down a few months ago that Yu’ikolovatu would be a graduate transfer because the Trojan defensive line needed an experienced wide body like him. Through the first few days, however, he’s been more than just a depth guy, he has worked his way into the first unit at nose tackle. He’s doing this while Noah Jefferson is out, mind you, but that isn’t what’s important, the important part is that he’s a big guy who is taking up space and we needed that.
- The Helton factor. I like what I’m seeing right now from a Clay Helton camp practice, and I’m seeing a coach who is putting his stamp on things more and more. From the way the practices are organized, the way the coaches are teaching, the way the players are reacting, it’s just a very workman-like vibe going on right now on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field and there’s no doubt it stems from the way Helton wants things done.
- The first thing that has stood out is just the increase in depth in comparison to recent years past. It’s noticeable during the early positional individual drills, and particularly during the 11-on-11 periods. What’s especially striking is just how much better the second and third-team units are now. There isn’t the dramatic drop-off in talent anymore. Even the defensive line – once thought to be a big problem area heading into the season – might have a fair amount of depth, thanks in part to the late addition of players like Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and Josh Fatu up front.
- The second thing ties directly in with the first – competition. It’s evident in almost every aspect of practice, and it definitely has everything to do with the increase in depth. It’s been most noticeable in the high number of position battles that have popped up, including at quarterback, left guard, center, tight end, inside linebacker, safety and all along the defensive line. Everyone seems to be playing at a high level because they know there is someone behind them looking to seize a starting role.
- The third thing that has jumped out is just the workman-like atmosphere of practice. Gone is the loud music reverberating throughout Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field, and in its place all you can hear is the sound of coaching and teaching. It’s all business out there, and I think it’s helped bring the team together, because one other thing you hear is some real emotion coming from the players. That’s been particularly the case during the late 11-on-11 periods when it’s not uncommon to hear the entire offense or defense erupt in celebration following a big play by their respective group.
- A teaching environment: I don’t think you can say enough what Clay Helton has done to change the environment of practice. It’s like, “No music while we’re studying.” No more being “cool” to impress recruits or current players. The results show a much more focused and businesslike attitude. The players I have talked to have surprisingly been supportive of the change, and they tell me they can concentrate better on what they are learning. There is a much more serious mood during practice. Even when practice officially started in Monday’s first Coliseum practice, there was no music, and the players continued their ability to concentrate on what was being taught. There wasn’t a whole lot of “dancing,” and everybody was on the same page to get better. Refreshing to say the least.
- Team bonding: I know every year the team will say how much they’ve improved from summer till training camp, and how the team is really together. I think many of us that cover the team wouldn’t always say we felt the say way for the team as a whole. However, many players in 2016 are saying how much this team is together compared it to previous seasons. The returning vets have really done an outstanding job of making the whole team-bonding concept a reality. Most players I talked with say this isn’t just about playing Alabama in the first game but an overall passion to return USC to its storied past. Now I don’t know if this will bring more wins with such a brutal schedule, but I am confident that this team really does have an all-for-one attitude and that should pay some sort of dividends through the good and challenging times.
- Execution of the systems: I think another impressive aspect of training camp has been how efficient both the offense and the defense look in knowing what they are supposed to do. It isn’t perfect, but the advancements are very visible. There is not much hesitation on defense in term of executing Clancy Pendergast’s attacking system. Offensively, you can see the new wrinkles and the team have has picked up new aspects of the playbook. Yes, the blocking and tackling are still a work in progress at this point in training camp, but the players on both sides of the ball aren’t thinking as much and are impressively executing. Because of this advancement in understanding the playbook, I am confident that the USC team that faces Alabama will be as ready as they can be for a first game.
- Offensive Line – this veteran group has been as good as advertised in the early going. The versatility and depth are showing with a solid two-deep developing.
- QB Competition – Max Browne and Sam Darnold have performed well so far. Both have shown nice command, and a willingness to throw the ball downfield. If both remain consistent, the choice for starter will come down to the little things that help move an offense.
- Kicking Game – Presumptive field goal kicker Matt Boermeester has shown very good accuracy with kicks 40 yards and under.