by Garry Paskwietz
Here’s a look at five of the top storylines that emerged from the recently concluded USC fall camp sessions:
Stevie Tu’ikolovatu earns starting NT spot
When it was first announced that Tu’ikolovatu would be a grad transfer from Utah, it was a welcome gift for the Trojans with the thought that he would offer an experienced reserve option. As fall camp went on, however, it started to become clear that he could be more than that. The first thing you notice is that Stevie is a big man. Of course, anyone who plays on the DL is a big man but Stevie is bigger and thicker than most. And he’s more wide than he is tall. Then we started hearing Clay Helton talk about his maturity and what he brought to the meeting room as a 25-year old married guy, which is quite a contrast to the overwhelming youth in the room. This has been an important factor especially after the Trojans lost Kenny Bigelow as a projected upperclass starter. It all culminated with the announcement that Stevie would be the starter at nose tackle, and it really wasn’t much of a shock when it happened based on what he had shown in camp.
The return of Cameron Smith and Toa Lobendahn
Let’s not take for granted the fact that both of these players who suffered late season knee injuries were able to return for fall camp without showing any negative effects. These are two critical players and there would have been big holes if either one was still sidelined or hobbled. Instead, both were in action from day one and they were brought along to the point where they were going full contact before too long. The presence of Smith, in particular, just makes such a difference in the middle of the Trojan defense and I feel much more comfortable with the thought of taking on Alabama and Stanford with him on the field. I’m also anxious to see what Toa can do at the spot so many have long projected would be best for him.
Max Browne holds off Sam Darnold
It was expected to be a competitive battle for the quarterback spot but I don’t think there were too many people who expected it to be as hard-fought as it was. And make no mistake about it, this was a legitimate competition between two very good quarterbacks with a coach who was willing to be patient and let it play out. By doing that, I think Helton helped Browne in his teammate’s eyes because they saw how Max responded to a serious challenge from Sam. You’ve heard all the praise for Max in terms of how he is a natural leader, a guy who has paid his dues, but he’s also got plenty of skills and one of the benefits of him getting the job is that we finally get to see what he can do in the starting role. I will also look forward with great anticipation to Darnold’s turn whenever it may come, because he showed an awful lot in pushing Max as hard as he did.
Chad Wheeler injury status
Wheeler is expected to be one of the main foundation pieces along the offensive line as he enters his fourth year as a starter at left tackle. At the moment, however, there is a bit of uncertainty as to his availability due to a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Wheeler first started fighting the issue midway through camp, tried to give it a go on a couple different occasions, and ended up shutting it down quickly every time. He took an injection last week and is supposed to be re-evaluated today. In his absence we’ve seen Zach Banner and Chuma Edoga both get looks at left tackle, and Helton has mentioned the possibility of Chris Brown and/or Jordan Simmons giving it a shot if there is a long-term need. I am paying attention to this injury in a big way because plantar fasciitis is something that can definitely linger, and it’s not something a blindside protector wants to be dealing with when going against speedy rush ends.
Defense won more days than offense
Coming into camp it was supposed to be the experienced offense that would be leading the way while the defense, particularly the front seven, found their way under returning defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. That’s not the way it worked out as the defense ended up winning more days in camp than the offense with a lot of credit going to Pendergast and his schemes that have allowed for faster play. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as USC fans have seen Pendergast execute a quick turnaround before when the Trojans were ranked #1 in the conference in 2013 in his first, and only, year as USC defense coordinator. It’s a very comforting feeling to look on the field and see Pendergast running the show again.