USC’s Spring Showcase, which was played as a true spring game this season, saw the Cardinal team beat the Gold team by the score of 27-7. That will give bragging right around the John McKay Center to Graham Harrell, head coach of Team Cardinal, and his staff, which featured Seth Doege, Craig Naivar, Vic So’oto and Clay McGuire.
But the score and the result won’t matter at all in the long run. Instead, we’ll focus here on some standouts that emerged during the game, as far as themes, units and players.
The Spring Game
Maybe the biggest winner on Saturday was the concept of a Spring Game. It was still technically called the Spring Showcase, but I know a game when I see one. That was four quarters of full-contact football and the coaches again found a way to inject intensity and competitiveness into on-field work this spring. No, it didn’t feel like a conference championship game and this wasn’t some flawless exhibition of football perfection. But it gave the entire healthy roster an opportunity to put many plays on film and participate in live game situations. If you were looking for signs this spring that the USC program is looking to back up the talk about being more physical and making toughness a hallmark of the program, Saturday was another step in the right direction.
Drake and Drake
The biggest takeaway from USC’s spring game is that we learned what we already knew. Drake Jackson and Drake London are stars and might be among the best in the country at their positions. London caught seven passes for 139 yards, both easily game highs, and showed just about elite skill he possesses. On the first play of the game, he caught a tunnel screen and quickly got upfield for a good gain. One another catch, he went up high along the sideline over a defender to bring in a great throw from quarterback Jaxson Dart. And on another catch, he was able to track a deep ball lofted high down the field from Kedon Slovis. London made the catch between two defenders for a 45-yard gain. He can do it all right now and it’s going to be a chore for opposing defenses to figure out how to cover him.
Jackson had one series where he swatted down a Kedon Slovis pass right as it was coming out of his hand, stopped Vavae Malepeai for a one-yard gain, and then registered a sack on third down. These two can go ahead and start getting ready for San Jose State.
Cornerbacks intercepting passes has been a theme this spring and that continued in the spring game. Dorian Hewett got things started with an interception on the first drive of the game. Chris Steele and Josh Jackson Jr. also added interceptions. That’s something this group has worked on and there is an art specifically to getting interceptions. Donte Williams continues to do a great job with this group. Steele has a goal of five interceptions this season and to stop relying so much on his hands and strength, instead working his feet and finding better positioning in coverage. Miller Moss tried to lob Steele and float a pass downfield to Bru McCoy, but Steele maintained solid coverage and was able to break on the ball himself for the interception. It was a similar play to what Steele did this past Tuesday, although in a different part of the field, when he was able to box London out and come down with a pick in the endzone.
Running back Stephen Carr has had a steady spring, but only a play or here that has really stood out. He had a couple of them on Saturday, and looks to be running with confidence and aggression right now. He had a big 26-yard run when he was able to bounce to the outside and turn upfield. But his most impressive play was a third-down catch where he received the ball well behind the first down marker. He quickly got upfield, put one move on a safety to create and angle and plowed forward through contact from multiple defenders to get the first down.
Keaontay Ingram had the flashiest play from the running backs, a 49-yard catch and run that showed off a bit of everything he brings to the position. And Vavae Malepeai had some solid carries late in the scrimmage. But Carr was the overall highlight at the position. Head coach Clay Helton spoke about Carr after the game, saying that he’s been impressed by the senior back in how he’s welcomed the new competition in the room in the form of Ingram and true freshman Brandon Campbell, in both senses of the word. Helton said Carr has been great to the new guys, acting as a mentor, but he also knows that he’s really competing for a spot and has let that fuel his play a bit.
And let’s not forget, two short, goal line touchdown runs for the backs. Carr got in on a two-yard run that followed his aforementioned third-down conversion. And Malepeai scored on a one-yard run on fourth down.
The inside linebackers
Helton praised the inside linebackers for the way they filled running lanes on Saturday, and everybody involved there was responsible, including Kana’i Mauga, Ralen Goforth, Raymond Scott, Tuasivi Nomura, Julien Simon, Spencer Gilbert and Danny Lockhart Jr. That group accounted for 19 tackles, led by seven from Nomura. Gilbert deserves praise for his interception, as he read quarterback Isaac Ward and stepped in front of a crossing pattern.
This is a spot that has had some depth issues over the past few years and it’s making do without Jordan Iosefa, Solomon Tuliaupupu, Eli’jah Winston, Kaulana Makaula and Tayler Katoa this spring, who are all out with various injuries. This is a spot where USC needs improved play this season and there seem to be some steps forward being taken by Nomura and Scott this spring. Simon didn’t have an immediate impact there, but he’s making more plays of late and had a nice stop where he filled the hole and brought a runner down immediately on Saturday.
Michael Jackson III
It’s getting more and more difficult to believe that Jackson is an early enrollee true freshman. He made two impressive one-handed grabs on Saturday, and while those highlights will be what many take away, they probably overshadow just how good he is on a play-to-play basis. He’s carried himself like a third-year veteran all spring and Helton mentioned as much following the game. He said the game “doesn’t look too big” for Jackson and he’s acted all spring like he belongs. He’s been able to take a lot of reps this spring with numbers down at wide receiver and quarterbacks are starting to look for him with regularity.
That third safety spot is missing both Greg Johnson and Max Williams due to injury, but USC’s defensive staff continues to find ways to weaponize it. Isaiah Pola-Mao, Briton Allen and Tommy Maurice all recorded sacks from that position. Allen has played very well this spring and using Pola-Mao in that spot seems to be clicking for him. It’ll be interesting to see how long that goes for or whether Pola-Mao moves back to his previous free safety spot. USC has to find a way to replace the production of Talanoa Hufanga last season and it’s unlikely to come just from plugging in a new safety in that spot and asking him to do what Hufanga did. If this nickel spot can become even more of a weapon for the defense, that’s a good thing.
USC is likely going to be without Brandon Pili for this season. Helton announced after the game that Pili underwent successful surgery for a torn achilles suffered earlier this spring. Getting back to full health after that injury can take up to a year. The Trojans are also without Ishmael Sopsher this spring, after he underwent surgery for compartment syndrome. Heading into spring, Pili and Sopsher looked like by far the most obvious top two options at defensive tackle. Now, it’s a position where Jamar Sekona and Jay Toia have to step up big time.
Toia showed on Saturday what he’s been doing all spring. He recovered a fumble and registered a sack among his three tackles. He was also plenty involved in the run game, presenting a tough interior presence that is difficult to move out of the way. He’ll have the next handful of months to continue shaping his body and getting physically ready for this level of football, but expecting the same kind of true freshman performance from him that USC got from Tuli Tuipulotu last season doesn’t seem out of the question at this point. Toia is another true freshman who has shown up looking like he belongs here.
It’s often overlooked, but there were some nice performances from the kickers on Saturday. Alex Stadthaus is filling in for Parker Lewis, who has missed the past few practices while with his family. Stadthaus went two-for-two on Saturday, making field goals from 34 and 47 yards. He’s been solid all spring. Ben Griffiths punted four times and averaged 47.5 yards per kick with a long of 53 yards. USC didn’t return any kicks or punts, but K.D. Nixon fielded all his punt return attempts cleanly, which is not easy to do off the foot of Griffiths.
Some eyebrows were raised when the spring schedule was announced and the showcase was more near the middle of the spring than the end, sitting there at practice nine rather than 15. Helton said one of the benefits is that the coaches will be able to watch the film and coach to it over the next six practices. That should be extremely beneficial after watching that game, as there are so many newcomers and backups who got a ton of reps. Now, instead of sending them off into summer, the coaches can work with those players on any mistakes and start to get them corrected now.
Quarterback Jaxson Dart is showing signs of becoming a potential star down the road with his combination of athletic ability and arm strength, but there’s a learning opportunity in there when he tries to buy time and loft the ball over the head of Josh Jackson Jr., who leapt up for the easy interception.
There will be opportunities to grow the young players immensely following this game, but perhaps the most work can be done along the offensive line, where position coach Clay McGuire now has game film from at least 10 of his potential starters. It’s really difficult to come up with a takeaway of the offensive line as a whole after that game, seeing as how the two teams were using lines that hadn’t been arranged in that way at all this spring. Individual breakdowns by McGuire will be valuable though, as he’ll have a chance to see Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich playing together at center and left guard, as well as Andrew Vorhees out at left tackle. Likewise, Andrew Milek and Jason Rodriguez got plenty of time together at center and left guard. Two longer runs came for the Gold team over the right side, where Jonah Monheim was playing right tackle and Gino Quinones was at right guard.
Dart isn’t ready yet, but he doesn’t need to be. On Saturday, he continued to show flashes of what made him the high school player of the year last fall. His athleticism was mitigated a bit in a setting where he can’t break tackles or fight through potential sacks, but he had a handful of tremendous throws, putting the ball in spots where only his receiver could get it and he was rewarded with some great catches. There were some mistakes that will be learning opportunities, but the flashes of potential greatness are already there and of the three potential No. 2 quarterbacks, Dart made the most plays on Saturday.