Garry Paskwietz and Johnny Curren give their position-by-position thoughts on the recently concluded USC Trojans 2015 spring ball practice sessions.
Garry Paskwietz: Johnny, we’re here to wrap up 2015 spring ball for the Trojans and let’s start things off talking about the quarterback spot where Cody Kessler continued to show that he is the leader of this team and in command of the offense. There has been a lot of talk of other guys who looked good in spring, and we will get to them, but I want to make sure that a guy like Kessler is not taken for granted in any way. You don’t get 5th year senior quarterbacks who are this good too often.
Johnny Curren: No, you don’t. He’s a little under appreciated at times, but he’s the unquestioned leader of the offense — you can tell that by the way that his teammates respond to him. He looked really comfortable in command of Sarkisian’s offense this spring, and that stands in stark contrast to last year at this time. That familiarity and confidence can’t be undervalued.
GP: Especially for a team with championship aspirations. But with that being said, you can’t talk about the QB spot this spring without mentioning Max Browne and the strides that he has made. He’s really carrying himself like a guy who is capable of being a starter and his play on the field shows that as well.
JC: He really impressed me this spring. He’s a hard worker who has made steady strides throughout his time on campus, but something really seemed to click over the last month, and it all culminated with his outstanding performance in the spring game. He seems to have made a statement that, unless someone surprises, the starting quarterback job is his when Kessler graduates.
GP: Yeah, Jalen Greene has shown flashes and he certainly can move around in the pocket better than any QB on the roster right now but the consistency isn’t there yet. And this spring was a struggle for Ricky Town in his first spring as a Trojan but the time should be a good head start for him to get into the playbook. Let’s move to running back, which was one of the more uncertain positions groups to evaluate (along with the d-line) because of injuries and expected newcomers in the fall. Only Justin Davis was really available but we also saw some Soma Vainuku, and I would like to see more. What did you think of those two guys?
JC: Davis looked really good, and just as importantly, completely healthy. After breaking his ankle as a freshman I’m not sure we ever saw the real Davis last year. He looked really sharp this spring, running with confidence. Vainuku, as always, brought that power back mentality to the position, with some real success at times. It will be interesting to see if the staff will give him more carries in 2015 as a result.
GP: I thought the receiver spot ended up being one of the more pleasant developments of spring. At the end of the day you had a lot of positive springs across the board, from the leaders of the group in JuJu Smith and Steven Mitchell, to a steady role for Darreus Rogers, the production from Ajene Harris when healthy, a nice second half of spring from Isaac Whitney and more and more signs from Sark that he is open to using Adoree’ Jackson more on offense. I’m pretty optimistic about what I saw from this spot.
JC: With the loss of Nelson Agholor and George Farmer, I think there was some real concern regarding the wide receiver position heading into the spring, but just like you, I was impressed with what I saw. Mitchell was consistently outstanding, and while Smith appeared to be a little bothered at times by a cast on his left thumb, he certainly ended the spring on a very high note, making nine grabs in the spring game. And you have to be extremely encouraged by Whitney’s improvement from Day 1 to Day 15 of spring ball. If that trend continues, he will definitely make an impact.
GP: To contrast that, however, is the tight end spot. With the absence of Bryce Dixon, which is still up in the air although you don’t hear any kind of rumblings one way or the other on his future with the team, there was a real opportunity for Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick in his return from academic issues to make an impact. That didn’t happen. Jalen looked rusty and never really got going, by the last part of spring we saw walk-on Connor Spears running with the first unit ahead of him. Spears is capable but more help may not arrive until the fall with guys like Tyler Petite and Taylor McNamara.
JC: The hope obviously is that we see Cope-Fitzpatrick return to his form of last spring and summer, because he was playing at a really high level then, but that didn’t happen this spring — but there is still time. Spears played better than expected, and he certainly looks like he can contribute, but the fact is without Dixon this position group just isn’t the same. That situation is definitely worth watching. Those incoming players could wind up being relied upon heavily.
GP: I agree that without Dixon things are different, and you have to wonder how much Sark might have to adjust his plans for that spot. OK, moving to the o-line. For how important this group is to the success of the team this year, you really don’t hear much from them. They are a blue-collar group and fairly soft-spoken across the board but they really seem to be taking a step forward with so much familiarity among them. That’s my biggest takeway for them this spring is how they seem to be playing well together, and multiple players talked about how much they like the new position coach, which is always a good sign.
JC: There is plenty to be optimistic about when it comes to this group. This has to be the deepest offensive line unit since the pre-sanction days, and like you said, they seem to have really taken to Connelly, making some nice strides throughout the spring. The interior three guys are particularly impressive, with Tuerk, of course, leading the way with his sturdy play. I’m curious to see what happens when Wheeler (knee) comes back. If he does return in time, will he be healthy enough to regain his starting spot, and if so, where do you move Lobendahn?
GP: I don’t know what you do on that one, a tough but good situation to face. And I agree about the depth, it’s the best 2nd unit we’ve seen in a long time. Flipping over to the d-line, it’s just so hard to judge what happened in spring because things should look so different in fall. If all falls into place you will be adding Antwaun Woods, Greg Townsend and Kenny Bigelow to the group that took part in spring (which would be a big difference) as well as the addition of some pretty talented freshmen. Two guys who I think deserve mention for what they did this spring are Delvon Simmons and Cody Temple. Simmons isn’t Leonard Williams but he’s not a bad option to have take over his spot. And you could tell Sark appreciated the effort that Temple gave in going against Tuerk every day, I think Cody earned himself some playing time with what he did.
JC: This is a group that has plenty of question marks coming out of the spring. There are just so many moving parts, it’s hard to really gauge just what kind of group the Trojans have here. I agree with you on Simmons and Temple — I thought they both impressed. Pelon flashed at times as well, but he probably needs to be more consistent. Just what kind of shape Woods, Bigelow and Townsend return in will be a critical factor to watch, and any way you look at it, some of those freshmen newcomers — Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson, Jacob Daniel, Kevin Scott and Christian Rector — will need to contribute.
GP: Linebacker is another spot that came out of spring in pretty good shape for the future. Su’a was as good as anybody on the field, he is going to be so good this year. It’s amazing how much more comfortable he looks now at the SLB spot compared to last fall. There was the worry about replacing Hayes Pullard but Lamar Dawson came along with a much-needed solid performance by a senior who had seen his share of struggles. Lamar really looked like a guy ready to be the starter at MLB. And then you had Olajuwon Tucker with a huge surprise move to slide ahead of Michael Hutchings and show that he’s ready for a role. I see Tucker being able to rotate with Sarao and be a star on special teams. And we have to mention Cameron Smith, he’s a pure linebacker, I liked him a lot.
JC: Dawson really came into camp in great shape, which in itself has to be seen as a great sign. And then he came out and performed at a high level. Sarkisian said he looked like a new player. Behind him, Smith showed that he’s a player to watch with an eye toward the future. He’s a big linebacker with a fierce brand of play, but what really caught my attention was how strong he was in coverage. At will linebacker Tucker was one of the great surprises of the spring. He moved ahead of Hutchings fairly quickly, and like you, I see him as a nice compliment to Sarao. As far as Cravens, not much more needs to be said. He’s going to be an exciting player to watch in 2015. Quinton Powell, Cravens’ backup, had a nice spring as well.
GP: And, oh yeah, there will be a few pretty nice freshman additions in the fall as well. Linebacker future is bright at USC. Speaking of bright, I also liked a lot of what I saw from the secondary. Adoree’ was Adoree’ at corner and Kevon Seymour was pretty solid as the other starter, which is so critical for this defense. Don’t you have to consider John Plattenburg one of the bigger surprises with the way he stood out at safety? Very mature player. I thought Chris Hawkins showed well in moving back and forth between safety and corner, I say leave him at safety with McQuay in that rotation as well.
JC: I do see Plattenburg as one of the surprises. He was noticeably more comfortable and confident out there, and I think that made a big difference. Hawkins, with his coverage ability, brought a different look to the other safety spot that I liked seeing, and then he also showed that he was physical enough to play the position as well. It will be interesting to see what happens as he and McQuay continue to battle in fall camp. At cornerback, I thought Seymour was terrific this spring. He was personally challenged by Sarkisian and I thought he really responded. He looked better than he has at any other point in his career. Jackson was stellar, and that certainly was no surprise. Another player who stood out to me was Jonathan Lockett. I think he’ll add nice depth at safety and cornerback.
GP: And can’t wait to see what Biggie brings because he should be in that mix right away. I want to hit on the kicking competition between Boermeester and Wood, which got a lot of attention after both guys hit 50 yarders in the spring game. It does seem like a close battle but I have to say i liked what I see from Boermeester when you consider how new he is to kicking.
JC: I like Boermeester a lot too, and just in my opinion, I think he has a slight edge. He has a big leg, and for someone who hasn’t been kicking long, he’s surprisingly accurate. But Wood is still right there, and that’s what is so great about this. Neither guy is letting up, and I really think they’re both making each other better. This has been a fun competition to watch.
GP: Let’s wrap this up with a thought on what stood out the most from spring. For me, it was the impact of the familiarity that comes in the second year of being under the same system. Kessler said it last week “there’s just no substitute for knowing each other” when it comes to players and coaches. It shows so much in the speed and crispness of a practice, where players know the playbook rather than learning everything for the first time. And I’ll finish by saying there is a lot of talent on this team.
JC: I agree. The difference between where this team was this spring compared to last year is like night and day, and not just in terms of the overall crispness and their familiarity with the playbook, but in their attitudes. There is a very upbeat atmosphere at USC right now that wasn’t necessarily there last spring. And with the talent that is there, and with all of those blue chip recruits who are set to arrive this summer, there is definite reason for optimism.
GP: Thanks Johnny. We will do this again soon to discuss the spring recruiting evaluation period which starts on April 15th