The USC Trojans are set to take the field on Tuesday afternoon for the first practice of 2021 spring ball and there are storylines everywhere. But three specific items to watch today will be exactly who takes the field, which offensive linemen are where, and what shape is everybody in after an offseason with Robert Stiner, USC’s Director of Football Sports Performance.
Injuries and holdouts
USC head coach Clay Helton said the Trojans will be without “a few” players to start spring ball due to health and safety protocols. That will be in addition to several players who will miss all or parts of spring ball due to injury.
Defensive tackle Ishmael Sophser underwent surgery for compartment syndrome and will be out for likely all of spring ball. Tight end Jude Wolfe is still recovering from foot surgery. Helton said they are hopeful to get him back later this spring.
Inside linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu and Jordan Iosefa are both still going through knee rehab, so they likely won’t be on the field in the near future.
Wide receiver Kyle Ford also won’t participate in contact practices this spring, as USC hopes to have him 100% healthy and in shape for the fall. Helton said Ford is doing some full-speed running and beginning to introduce change of direction right now.
Helton said they’ll “get the most out of what they can do right now in a totally safe environment for him right now.” He added that the mental toughness Ford has shown in dealing with the multiple injuries has been inspiring.
The wide receiver position will be one to watch overall. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said injuries at the position will limit the available bodies right now, and Helton seemed to echo that.
Helton said that Drake London, Gary Bryant Jr., Bru McCoy, Michael Jackson III, K.D. Nixon and John Jackson III will all be out there this spring, but that there will be some abbreviated practices for some of the guys with “bumps and bruises” early on. The only specific injury note given was that McCoy is dealing with a slight hamstring injury.
Shuffling the line
With the exception of center Brett Neilon (and maybe even including him), the expectation this spring is that every offensive lineman will line up at multiple positions in many different alignments.
USC has a hole at left tackle in the form of departed starter Alijah Vera-Tucker, but a shakeup at every position isn’t completely out of the question.
Harrell said the first goal this spring will be to identify the five best offensive linemen, then figure out where those five best fit along the line, and next to which other players. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire will have arguably the biggest and most important challenge of the spring among coaches, in getting that unit solidified and ready to lead the USC offense in the fall.
“Early on, we’ll shuffle them around to get a lot of different guys a lot of different looks at all the different spots,” Harrell said. That’s kind of the play early on, is let’s shuffle the deck and put guys together, put guys in different spots, put different guys next to each other and see which fie guys we evaluate and think are the best five. And then once we can kind of figure out who’s the best five, who plays best next to who and at what position.”
Helton previously mentioned Jalen McKenzie, Courtland Ford, Casey Collier and Jonah Monheim as the four linemen who will get a crack at replacing Vera-Tucker at left tackle. It’ll be interesting to see if any others get a shot there, as there would seem to be a few other potential candidates, including Jason Rodriguez and Andrew Vorhees.
One name Harrell specifically mentioned was Monheim, as the second-year lineman saw some time last season, but has been impressive over the offseason. Harrell said the staff doesn’t want to overwhelm any of the linemen by making them learn multiple positions if it’s clear they are far more comfortable at one spot, or start swimming with all the additional information and technique needed to master multiple spots. Monheim has worked on snapping this offseason, and the coaches now see him as a legitimate option at all five offensive line positions.
“A guy like Jonah comes to mind, who was a freshman last year and did some great things throughout the season and has been great the last seven weeks in the offseason,” Harrell said. “But he’s also a really, really smart guy…He’s smart enough to make calls, he’s athletic enough to play out on the edge and he’s strong enough to play inside. He’s a guy who we think can play any of the five positions. I think that we’re going to have to get him reps at all the different spots and see if he’s one of the best five. And if he is, what spot fits him best? Guys like that who can do it mentally and physically really give themselves a chance to get out on the football field.”
Robert Stiner, USC’s Director of Football Sports Performance, brought his own twist to the Trojans’ winter conditioning program and Helton said it’s paid off in a big way.
“It wasn’t just training sessions,” Helton said. “It’s really a system and a system of accountability — a system that produces mental and physical toughness and really makes the guys lean on each other. And you compete each and every day.”
Helton said everything relies on a point system and added that every workout Stiner devises has factors that push both competition and mental toughness.
“It’s one of the better offseason programs I’ve ever witnessed,” Helton said. “Probably the most mentally tough program that I’ve seen, and really has taken the competitive level of our team to another level.”
The strength and conditioning staff is hugely responsible for offseason development, as that crew is basically running the program for eight weeks between the fall season and spring ball, and eight more weeks over the summer.
“That staff is 16 weeks of not only training young men, but really developing your culture,” Helton said. “And really, the mental and physical toughness and the competitiveness and the united-ness that goes into the game. Credit to coach Stiner and their staff for what they’ve done. We’ve got a team that is ready to go into spring ball, both physically and mentally.”