Give 3 things you’re going to be watching for when spring ball begins next week:
New wrinkles in the offense: It’s not too often a coaching staff in college football has the opportunity to work for a second year with a talent like Sam Darnold, and you get the sense Clay Helton, Tee Martin and Tyson Helton are going to want to explore new ways to take advantage of the rare skills that Darnold brings to the table. How will that manifest itself? We probably won’t see a lot in spring but there could be signs of increased use of an up-tempo style, more flexibility for Darnold to control plays at the line of scrimmage, more running from Sam, etc. Whatever it is, chances are it will be exciting if it involves Sam Darnold.
Replacing key starters: There is a lot of optimism surrounding the Trojan football program but there are also some pretty key holes to fill starting in this spring ball session. On the offensive side of the ball you’ve got a pair of receivers and a offensive tackles to replace at the top of the list. I’m particularly interested in the offensive tackle spot, where Chuma Edoga is one starting candidate but as we sit here right now I’m not entirely sure who will emerge at the other spot. And on defense, there is a hole to fill on each level, with most of the attention (deservedly so) going to the absences created by Adoree’ Jackson and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, but I’m also interested in who steps in for Michael Hutchings because he was so involved with getting the defense lined up right.
Ready to show more: One of my favorite things to watch in spring is to see which of the guys who redshirted last year have spent that time developing to the point where they are ready to step into contributing roles. This year I’ll be paying a lot of attention to Jamel Cook at safety, he’s a guy with a great frame who should finally be completely healthy to show what he can do. And I know guys like Jordan Iosefa, Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku didn’t technically redshirt but they also didn’t play a lot either, and I expect to see a lot more from all three in spring. On offense, the names I’ll be focusing on the most are Josh Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Vaughns at the outside receiver spot since one of them will likely be the starter along with Michael Pittman. I don’t think either Cary Angeline or Vavae Malepeia will be challenging for a starting spot but I liked what I saw from both of them on the practice field last year and am anxious to see where they are at.
The competition along the offensive line. With the departure of both of the Trojans’ starting offensive tackles from last season in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, not to mention starting left guard Damien Mama, there figures to be an atmosphere of fierce competition along the offensive line each and every day, and it will be interesting to see who rises to the top. I’m looking for Chuma Edoga and Chris Brown to potentially nail down starting jobs this spring. Unfortunately, Toa Lobendahn will still be limited, so we likely won’t see him move back into the starting lineup until fall camp.
Who will make a move at wide receiver? Similar to the situation up front on offense, USC also loses plenty of talent at wide receiver not only in starters JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, but also reserves De’Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney. Deontay Burnett already looks to be locked in at the slot position, especially with Steven Mitchell Jr. still sidelined, but Smith-Schuster and Rogers’ jobs appear to be up for grabs. Jalen Greene and Michael Pittman Jr. are two players who I think will make a major push, but there is a ton of young, but unproven talent here, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see a dark horse emerge.
The continued development of Sam Darnold. Can the Heisman candidate not only keep up the stellar level of play that he put on display this past season, but actually improve? That’s what I’m going to be watching for. If he does, the sky is most certainly the limit for this team. I’m also curious to see how he reacts to the increased media attention, and the larger leadership role that he’s undoubtedly set to take on as the now-undeniable face of the team. Judging by how he’s coped with everything else so far, my guess is he won’t have any problem with it.
No question, it will be coach Neil Callaway’s (photo above) revamping of an offensive line that has to replace two first-team All-Pac-12 tackles in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler and second-team All-Pac-12 offensive guard Damien Mama. It figures that junior Chuma Edoga will get the first shot at Wheeler’s left tackle vacancy and when he gets totally healthy, senior Toa Lobendahn will get a close look. The problem is that Lobendahn will be held out of spring ball to continue rehab from knee surgery, so all eyes will concentrate on youngsters Clayton Johnston, Roy Hemsley, and veteran Chris Brown to plug the holes. Brown, however, could be a real factor in terms of finding a starting position somewhere along the line. Unfortunately, redshirt freshman tackle Nathan Smith is out, as he, too, rehabs from knee surgery, which was suffered before the Rose Bowl. Obviously, there will be a lot of pressure, which should encourage the competition to be the protectors of Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Sam Darnold.
The Trojans defensive line competition will again take center stage. It won’t be easy to replace a nose tackle like All-Pac-12 stud Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, but there will be a host of new candidates. Probably in the lead position will be senior Josh Fotu, but he figures to get heavy competition from the return of veteran Kenny Bigelow, who is coming off yet another knee injury. If Kenny is allowed to play during spring, things could get mighty interesting. However, things will still be interesting with the early arrival of true freshman Marlon Tuipulotu, who was one of the premier prep defensive linemen in the country in 2016. I am personally looking forward to seeing what Marlon can show on this level. The competition at nose tackle should be fierce, and nobody will like that better than D-line coach Kenechi Udeze, who had a wonderful first-year coaching effort at Troy. If the Trojans are to live up to the big pub, it will have to start on defense and specifically at nose tackle.
It’s co-No. 3 for me. It’s hard to pick a No. 3 with the quarterback and wide receiver competition so potentially vital to the success of the 2017 Trojans. If Heisman Trophy headliner Sam Darnold should go down, the quarterback backup becomes the immediate spotlight. Although it appears that junior Jalen Greene might have the inside track to winning the job as Darnold’s caddy, Jalen will be challenged by redshirt quarterback Matt Fink and true freshman Jack Sears, fresh off a state championship at San Clemente (Calif.) High. Keep your eyes focused on Sears, he is football’s version of a basketball gym rat. Once Sears picks up the system, he could emerge as Darnold’s eventual backup, although I still think that Greene will be given first shot because he has some experience at the position and didn’t embarrass himself when he got some reps in games.
As for the wide receiver situation, the competition will be interesting to see who can replace JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers and departed backups Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton. There is a good foundation with Rose Bowl hero Deontay Burnett and the aforementioned Jalen Greene returning, but who will help take the pressure off him and Darnold? It figures that youngsters Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman, Travon Sidney, Velus Jones, and Josh Imatorbhebhe will have their opportunities to impress coach Tee Martin. One thing all the competitors know, if they’re open, Sam Darnold will get them the ball. They just have to prove they know their routes and can hang onto pigskin when it’s thrown their way.
Offensive Tackles – replacing the departing Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner is job # 1 for the USC offense. We know about Chuma Edoga, but which side of the line (left or right tackle) he plays will be partially determined by the growth and consistency of the other contenders (Clayton Johnston, Kris Brown, Roy Hemsley, etc.) They all will have to step up in the absence of OT candidate Toa Lobendahn who continues to rehab for the Fall.
Wide Receivers – perhaps the most entertaining competition will be to watch who will replace JuJu Smith and Darreus Rogers at the outside wide receiver positions. Will new star Deontay Burnett line up on the perimeter and join talented youngsters Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, Josh Imatorbhebhe? How will speedster Velus Jones and the versatile Jalen Greene be used? Every practice will get SC one step closer to revealing who the next group of play makers are for the explosive QB Sam Darnold.
Placekicker – in a few days we will learn the status of kicker Matt Boermeester, and whether he’ll be on the Spring roster. If not, all eyes turn to Michael Brown. The freshman will have to step up and fill a role that determines at least one or two victories in a season . . . as anyone who saw the 2017 Rose Bowl can attest to.