The first scrimmage of 2019 fall camp was a long, physical practice on Saturday afternoon that saw the offense run more than 100 plays, including several deep touchdown passes and an occasionally powerful running attack. Defensively, the Trojans intercepted two passes as the starters looked solid throughout.
Undoubtedly, this was one of the longer scrimmages I can remember covering at USC. Every time it felt like the three horns would sound, signaling the end of practice, another offensive and defensive group would head out onto the field to start another drive. Every coach will have plenty of film to review after Saturday’s scrimmage.
Overall, it was a good day for the three veteran quarterbacks. Matt Fink and Jack Sears both hooked up with Velus Jones on deep touchdown passes, Sears also his Devon Williams for a touchdown, while JT Daniels found Amon-Ra St. Brown and Williams for touchdowns. Head coach Clay Helton specifically praised Daniels and Sears for their performance late in the scrimmage during two-minute situations.
The injury list was similar to what we’ve seen over the past few practices. Defensive linemen Jacob Lichtenstein and Brandon Pili, cornerback Max Williams, linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu, wide receivers Kyle Ford and John Jackson, and tight end Ethan Rae.
This was the first time we’ve observed Rae catching passes during individual drills, but he and Jackson then came over to do rehab work during the scrimmage.
John Houston and Talanoa Hufanga were held out of the full tackling portion of the scrimmage. True freshman Ralen Goforth started at middle linebacker, while nickelback Chase Williams moved to Hufanga’s safety spot, with Greg Johnson sliding over to nickel, and Olaijah Griffin and Chris Steele manning the corners.
Drake Jackson was poked in the eye during the latter portion of the scrimmage, but appeared to be fine.
Before the scrimmage, the Trojans ran through several individual drills, and one of the interesting ones pitted the linebackers against running backs in blitz pickup. This was the first time we’ve seen two linebackers showing blitz, with linebackers coach Johnny Nansen signaling, out of view of the running back, which one will actually rush. From that point, the running back had to determine which linebacker to engage, then finish the pass block.
We saw varying degrees of success from all the running backs. Markese Stepp made a nice recovery to stick with Palaie Gaoteote. Stephen Carr had wins against John Houston and Gaoteote. And Kenan Christon did well to hold off Tuasivi Nomura.
As for the defenders, Ralen Goforth was impressive, though his wins were over two walk-on backs. John Houston got around both Carr and Stepp. Kana’i Mauga split reps against Quincy Jountti. And Maninoa Tufono got past Christon.
JT Daniels was the first quarterback up for Saturday’s scrimmage, as he went with the first-team offense against the first-team defense. Daniels found Tyler Vaughns three times on the first drive, though Vaughns dropped one. The second completion was followed by a Goforth tackle, while cornerback Olaijah Griffin and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown got tangled up following the play, eventually leading to both players grabbing the other’s facemask and drawing flags. Those penalties set the tone a bit for that aspect of the day, as the Trojans drew double-digit penalties for infractions ranging from false starts to targeting.
Stephen Carr was able to showcase a little of that burst he has back, as he exploded through a hole and was barely tripped up by Chase Williams, or else it would have been a long touchdown run.
Matt Fink was up with the second unit for the following drive, and after a few runs from Jountti, and a pass to Munir McClain, where Jountti had a terrific blitz pickup, Fink went up over the top on a deep ball to Velus Jones down the sideline. Fink was as fired up as we’ve seen him on the practice field at any time this spring or fall as he celebrated with Jones.
With Kedon Slovis at quarterback, center Brett Neilon fired back a bad snap that Slovis batted around but was able to pick up and still deliver a completion. It was one of two bad snaps on the day—true freshman Gino Quinones had the other—but the center exchange has not been an issue this fall.
St. Brown made his first big play after a short pass from Slovis, when he found some running room and broke outside and down the sideline. Markese Stepp eventually finished the drive with a 12-yard touchdown, following a strong block from tight end Josh Falo.
Sears was sacked by Nomura, then benefitted from a targeting call against true freshman Dorian Hewett on a pass attempt to Michael Pittman. Sears then his Jones for a 60-yard touchdown on a deep ball over Adonis Otey.
Daniels looked to have found St. Brown deep down the field for a 60-yard touchdown of his own, but that appeared to be a continuation of a play blown dead by a Greg Johnson sack.
Briton Allen made his presence known hitting Jountti hard and forcing a fumble. Allen had a few nice tackles during the scrimmage and brings a physical presence to the safety spot. Also among the reserve defenders, Nick Figueroa and Caleb Tremblay both turned in solid performances. Tremblay was involved in multiple tackles for loss, and players on the sideline could be heard shouting praise toward both players at various points.
Pittman didn’t have his number called a lot during the scrimmage, but he did wind up on the receiving end of a deep Fink pass during a two-minute drill, where he ran a double move to get loose against coverage from Steele.
Michael Brown finished that drive with a short field goal.
Slovis was up and down during his two-minute drive, as he threw two beautiful balls to Devon Williams. The first was a back-shoulder that cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart could do nothing about, and the second was a deep ball that landed perfectly in Williams hands for a score, but Williams couldn’t quite hang on as the cornerback made contact. But Slovis followed those with an interception to Otey. Slovis’ following drive ended with an Otey pass deflection, and the one after that finished when he threw high to St. Brown and the ball was intercepted by Chase Williams.
Slovis has been tremendous through spring and fall. The mistakes are piling up a little bit right now, but he’s shown enough promise to think that even if he doesn’t wind up seriously in the mix this year, he’s absolutely a guy to watch in the future.
Daniels took a drive into the endzone with the help of some nifty yards after the catch by St. Brown. The sophomore receiver is going to be fun to watch in this offense this year. Helton raved about his ability with the ball in his hands after the catch.
Matt Fink’s drive resulted in two touchdowns, as Jountti broke loose for a 24-yard touchdown, then the coaches pulled the ball back out and Frink hit Jude Wolfe, then kept it himself for a score.
For a while, the scrimmage became the Markese Stepp show, as the powerful back really punished the third-team defense. On one play, he took the ball outside and met up with three defenders, who eventually ushered him out of bounds but never actually brought him to the ground. Another, Stepp ran through several defenders at the line of scrimmage before being gang tackled a few yards down the field. And on a fourth-and-short play, Stepp ran into the entire defensive line and several linebackers at the line of scrimmage, and somehow wound up gaining two yards for a first down.
It was only fitting that the scrimmage ended on a short Stepp touchdown run.