The Pac-12 received a recruiting boost Monday night, as several members of the Ground Zero 7-on-7 team announced their college intentions and over the course of the day, the conference added five commitments in total. Specifically, the Los Angeles programs were the big winners with the Ground Zero prospects, as UCLA added two pieces to its 2016 class -- in No. 1 inside linebacker Lokeni Toailoa and athlete Demetric Felton -- and USC got on the board for the 2017 class, with running back Stephen Carr.
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.
Offense and defense are done, so we'll wrap it up with special teams today ... beginning with the South.
Arizona: Kicker Casey Skowron has his ups and downs, but finished with a respectable 71.4 percent field-goal percentage on 28 attempts last season. Skowron's job doesn’t figure to be in jeopardy, but the Wildcats have a pair of freshmen (Ollie Graybar and Josh Pollack) on the roster. Second-team All-Pac-12 punter Drew Riggleman will be back for his third year as the starter. DaVonte' Neal (punt returns) and Tyrell Johnson (kick returns) also return.
Arizona State: Kicker Zane Gonzalez was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s best kicker, and converted on 22 of 27 field-goal attempts. He has two years of eligibility of remaining. Left-footed punter (here is Bill Belichick on why that's significant) Matt Haack will also be back after averaging 43.3 yards per punt last season. The Sun Devils will spend some time during the spring addressing the return game after losing Kyle Middlebrooks and Damarious Randall, who handled punt and kickoff return duties last season.
Colorado: Kicker Will Oliver is gone, which leaves Chris Graham and Diego Gonzalez as the remaining kickers on the roster. Neither has kicked for the Buffs, but Gonzalez does have college experience ... as a punter at Monterrey Tech in Mexico. Recent signee Alex Kinney is the favorite to replace Darragh O'Neill at punter. Kinney was ESPN.com’s No. 13-ranked punter in the Class of 2015. Several players are in the mix to return kicks and punts, namely Shay Fields, Nelson Spruce, and Phillip Lindsay.
UCLA: After an underwhelming sophomore year, Ka'imi Fairbairn became one of the Pac-12’s most consistent kickers in 2015, converting on 18 of 22 attempts. He’s hit 29 straight attempts from 35 yards or fewer. Punter Matt Mengel handled a majority of the Bruins’ punts (59 attempts), and that doesn’t figure to change, but Adam Searl, who punted 11 times during the season, seemingly has a chance to fight for more playing time. Ishmael Adams should again be one of the conference’s most dangerous return men.
USC: After four years of Andre Heidari, USC is looking for a new kicker. That competition is expected to include Alex Wood, Heidari’s backup the past three years, former junior-college transfer Matt Boermeester, and Wyatt Schmidt. Punter Kris Albarado will be USC’s starting punter for the third season, but don’t sleep on quarterback Cody Kessler's ability to pin teams deep as well. The Trojans aren’t short on return options, but it’s hard to foresee many opportunities for anyone not named Adoree' Jackson, who will be of the nation’s most dangerous special-teams weapons.
Utah: 'Automatic' Andy Phillips led the Pac-12 with 23 field goals on 28 attempts and converted 12 of 15 attempts from 40 yards or longer. No one else in the conference made more than six attempts from that distance. Both Phillips and punter Tom Hackett were named first-team All-Pac-12 and will return in 2015. The special teams does figure to take a hit with the departure of Kaelin Clay, who was given first-team all-conference honors as a return man.
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans return to spring football practice on Tuesday on Cromwell Field, and head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff will continue to teach, evaluate and prepare for the 2015 season. Here are five things Trojans fans can expect to see and not see in the final three weeks of competition.
Trojans fans can expect to see: The competition for a starting spot among the wide receivers (except for sophomore JuJu Smith) should continue to be fast and furious. One of those wide receivers caught in the thick of the competition is junior Darreus Rogers, who is fighting to maintain his visibility as a potential starter as explosive sophomore Steven Mitchell continues to impress and junior JC transfer Isaac Whitney adjusts to big-time college football.
Trojans fans can expect not to see: Any drop-off in productivity from either incumbent senior quarterback and Heisman candidate Cody Kessler or improving sophomore quarterback Max Browne, which works to the benefit of those wide receivers fighting to join Smith as starters.
Trojans fans can expect to see: Reteaching by the Trojans staff in the first week back from spring vacation, much like coaches did last spring. With just nine practice days left, expect the end of this week and all through next week to become more physically intense before winding down for the annual spring game on Saturday, April 11, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Trojans fans can expect not to see: A lot of full 11-on-11 contact scrimmaging. Although the Trojans will have the balance of a huge and talented freshmen class arriving in summer, the Trojans' depth is still tenuous with defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers. No way is Sark going to push the envelop in the spring and risk injury to a roster that can ill afford any casualties.
Trojans fans can expect to see: More shuffling and experimenting along the offensive line. Pay attention to the movement of sophomore Toa Lobendahn, who is currently the starting left tackle, as junior starting left tackle Chad Wheeler continues to rehab (knee). The question of who will back up all-star senior center Max Tuerk remains fluid; Lobendahn was snapping before spring break. Keep an eye on sophomore Nico Falah, who has been a pleasant surprise at left tackle. The uncertain status of sophomore center/guard Khaliel Rodgers, who was sent home before the before the break for undisclosed reasons, is a potential hiccup.
Trojans fans can expect not to see: Any meaningful development of depth along the defensive line due to injuries and rehabs. Senior Cody Temple has greatly helped at nose tackle in place of senior leader Antwaun Woods, who continue to rehab (chest muscle). The probable starting down three in 2015 -- senior tackles Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon and NT Woods -- will not be together this spring, so any true development of depth won’t come until those heralded group of talented but inexperienced true freshmen D-liners show up in the summer with the return of redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow (knee) and oft-injured senior Greg Townsend Jr. (foot).
Trojans fans can expect to see: The Trojans' four early entry freshmen continuing to show progress. Offensive tackle Chuma Edoga and inside linebacker Cameron Smith have demonstrated that by the end of spring they could be in the mix for playing time when the Trojans host Arkansas State in the season opener.
Trojans fans can expect not to see: The linebacker situation, both inside and outside, getting settled due to the current foot injury to senior starter Anthony Sarao and the obvious lack of depth. Again, it’s wait and see until the arrival of those ballyhooed freshmen linebackers, although it’s conceivable that one of those freshmen, Osa Masina or Porter Gustin, might find himself at tight end sooner rather than later.
Trojans fans can expect to see: Sarkisian continue to work with four wide receivers due to the lack of depth at tight end. He'll also make more use of the fullback to help with blocking and pass receiving duties.
Trojans fans can expect not to see: The fullback running the ball with any regularity or any significant shakeup in the quarterback pecking order. By the end of spring, the pecking order will be Kessler, Browne, redshirt freshman Jalen Greene, and true freshman Ricky Town.
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.
We've gone through all the defensive position groups and wrap up with linebackers in the South.
Arizona: You may have heard a little something about Scooby Wright III. All he did as a sophomore was have one of the most productive seasons in college football history (163 tackles) on his way to just about every major accolade out there. On the rare occasion Wright didn’t make a tackle, Arizona’s most productive linebacker was Cody Ippolito. He shared time with Derrick Turituri (they were both listed atop the depth chart) and Jake Matthews started on the opposite side. With several other key areas to replace on the defense, the ‘Cats are in good shape here.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils list no fewer than 24 linebackers on their official roster, so expect some shuffling throughout the spring. Their top two returners are Laiu Moeakiola (72 tackles) and Salamo Fiso (83 tackles), both of whom figure to remain key pieces in 2015. Same with D.J. Calhoun, who started the opener last year as a true freshman and was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. Davon Durant, the nation’s top-rated junior college linebacker in the country, was expected to earn a substantial role, but his status remains in question -- he’s suspended indefinitely -- after he was arrested on allegations of aggravated assault and domestic violence.
Colorado: Above all, the health of Addison Gillam will be essential if Colorado expects to compete in the South. He lost nearly 30 pounds last year due to a combination of injuries and being sick, and it significantly impacted his production. If he’s back up to around 230, he and Kenneth Olugbode give the Buffs a pair of experienced, reliable players in the linebacker corps. New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt also will coach the linebackers, which is the position group he coached with the San Francisco 49ers the last four seasons. One interesting player to watch is Jaleel Awini, who made the switch from quarterback.
UCLA: Has there been a program in the country with as much star power at linebacker as the Bruins over the past couple of years? If there is, it doesn’t come to mind immediately. Replacing Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks (insert snarky second-team All-Pac-12 comment here) is obviously a difficult task, but Kenny Young drew rave reviews from the coaching staff last year and could be in line for a more significant role. We all know about Myles Jack, but the Bruins need (and will expect) more from Deon Hollins.
USC: Hayes Pullard (95 tackles) was one of the more underappreciated linebackers in the Pac-12 over the past few years and his departure will be sorely missed. Same goes for J.R. Tavai, who was tied for the team lead with seven sacks last year. However, with Su’a Cravens (68 tackles) and Anthony Sarao (74 tackles) returning, the Trojans still are in good shape. Scott Felix started five games last year as the pass-rushing outside linebacker and is in line for more playing time. Lamar Dawson started games over three seasons before sitting out last year due to injury. He’s back and is expected to compete with Michael Hutchins (backed up Pullard and had one start last year) and early enrollee Cameron Smith, the nation’s No. 8-ranked ILB from the Class of 2015.
Utah: As Utah transitions to new defensive coordinator John Pease from the departed Kalani Sitake, linebacker figures to be a position of strength. Three players -- Jared Norris, Gionni Paul and Jason Whittingham -- have combined for 376 career tackles in their careers, and Jason Fanaika (55 tackles in 2014) started at outside linebacker in the Utes’ Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl win. Looking for a reason to go with Utah in the South? This position group is a good place to start.
Happy Friday. Are you all March Mad? Or did you pick UCLA, Georgia State and UAB in your bracket?
But of course you did. You read the Pac-12 blog.
To the notes!
Greeny from Boston writes: You guys keep saying six Pac-12 teams are going to be ranked or should be ranked. give me a "buy/sell" on each team, just for argument's sake.
Ted Miller: You don't name the six teams, but I'm going to assume you refer to: Oregon, USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and Utah. My guess is at least five of those six start off ranked in the preseason polls. I'd also practically guarantee one of those six wins the conference and/or becomes the Pac-12's top College Football Playoff candidate.
Buy: The Ducks might have the most dynamic collection of skill players in the country. Check that. They do have the most dynamic collection of skill players. And there's that recent track record, too.
Sell: While Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams might be the second coming of Saint Mariota, we tend to raise a skeptical eye in the Pac-12 when a team is uncertain at quarterback, not to mention replacing the best one in program history. And the defense has some questions.
Buy: Topped by QB Cody Kessler, there's an impressive array of returning starters, both skill players and linemen. Hard not to like a team with five talented starting offensive linemen coming back.
Sell: Losing Leonard Williams is a big hit for the defense, and there are still depth concerns connected to now-completed NCAA sanctions. And, yes, there's some skepticism about whether Steve Sarkisian can build and maintain a team consistent enough to win championships.
Buy: Just look at the depth chart. The Bruins have 18 starters coming back from a 10-3 team. That's the most returning starters in the conference and sixth-most in the nation.
Sell: Not only has UCLA lost Brett Hundley, a three-year starter at QB, the contenders to replace him inspire more questions -- at this point, at least -- than answers. Do you go with the hyped-but-green true freshman in Josh Rosen or the scrappy-but-less-physically-talented veteran in Jerry Neuheisel?
Buy: With nine returning starters, the defense should be much better, and quarterback Mike Bercovici provides an easy -- and better throwing -- answer behind center.
Sell: The defense should be better, but is it championship-level in terms of talent on all three levels? And while Bercovici might have a good arm, he doesn't have the strong group of receivers from 2014, a cautionary note made worse by the season-ending knee injury to wide receiver Cameron Smith this spring.
Buy: Experience at QB, a 1,000-yard rusher, quality depth at receiver and the nation's best defensive player in Scooby Wright. What's not to like?
Sell: The offensive line takes three big hits and the defense remains questionable around Wright, particularly the secondary, which is replacing three multiyear starters.
Buy: Four offensive linemen return to make life easy for running back Devontae Booker, a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate, and the defense has nice talent coming back on all three levels. Oh, and the specialists, kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett, were first-team All-Pac-12 last year.
Sell: There continues to be uncertainty at QB, even though Travis Wilson is vying to become a rare four-year starter, and the coaching upheaval that led to two new coordinators and a soured relationship between coach Kyle Whittingham and AD Chris Hill isn't easy to write off.
What conclusions can we draw from these superficial bits of analysis? Just words on a page, my friends. Those that prove true next December, we'll reproduce with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" playing in the background. And those that prove false we'll hope you forget.
"Cordial Duck" from Carson City, Nevada, writes: Reading the defensive position breakdowns reminded me to ask: It seemed Washington's defense last year -- if there were truly three All-American defenders -- should have provided the Huskies with at least two more wins. I think any college defense with that level of talent should simply overwhelm about half the teams they play, then provide the stops to split the rest. Was this a case of good individual stats, but the teamwork wasn't there?
Ted Miller: Hmm... not sure Huskies would agree there are too many "Cordial Ducks" out there.
I do think the Huskies' defense should have been better in 2014. It shouldn't have yielded 52 points to Eastern Washington -- hey, Oregon! -- or 44 to UCLA or 30 to Oklahoma State. And I do think the Huskies should have won 10 games, just based on how they lost at home to Arizona and the faceplant they did against an inferior Oklahoma State team in the bowl game. I would imagine coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski doesn't feel like it was his best season, though keep in mind it was his first in the Pac-12.
Yet I have three counter-arguments: 1. The numbers actually were pretty darn good; 2. The secondary was really, really young and vulnerable, particularly after the dismissal of cornerback Marcus Peters; 3. The offense didn't provide much help.
As for the numbers, the Huskies ranked third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, second in run defense, fourth in third-down defense and second in the nation in sacks. The notable weak number was pass-efficiency defense, but that speaks to No. 2, as the entire secondary was freshmen and sophomores, most of whom had no Pac-12 experience, in a year when the conference was flush with A-list quarterbacks.
As for the offense, Husky fans can pick their favorite adjectives.
Further, a defense that has a couple of superstars sometimes suffers from, "He'll Save Us Syndrome," and that might have hit the Huskies on occasion. I can't quantify or even point to specific instances -- any help here, Huskies? -- but it's possible the other eight guys, at times, waited on Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha or Shaq Thompson to make a play instead of applying their 100-percent focused intensity on doing their jobs.
Dimond Mike from Oakland writes: I think the blog has given Jared Goff plenty of love, but as a fan who has seen the real deal (Aaron Rodgers) and poseur (Kyle Boller), Jared Goff is a no-doubt-about-it starting NFL QB in years to come. He'll have the numbers to back it up, so shouldn't that get him on more national radars, or is it solely about getting 10-plus wins?
Ted Miller: Are you starting the "Dimond Mike Says So!" campaign in advance of the season in anticipation of following up with the "Dimond Mike Told You So!" bacchanalia?
I think: 1. Goff has a future as an NFL starter; 2. He will put up big numbers next fall as a junior and position himself to be a first-day NFL draft pick.
If NFL prospects are what you are referring to when you say "national radar," those are already there. If you are talking about All-American honors and other sorts of college football trophies, he has to put up big numbers for a Cal team that's winning.
The Bears might not need to become national contenders for Goff to get attention for major awards, but I doubt a 7-5 season would help him at the ballot box. Just the way these things work in college.
Addison from Washington, D.C., writes: I've enjoyed your spring breakdowns by position. Who do you think is going to be the offensive and defensive players of the year next season?
Ted Miller: Kevin already took on this question in his mailbag, but why should he have all the fun?
Offensively, I think USC QB Cody Kessler is the front-runner, though I've got a jones to go with Utah's Booker.
Defensively, you start with defending champion Wright, who has the sort of makeup to be motivated by those who wonder what the heck he could do for an encore. You also have to mention UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, USC linebacker Su'a Cravens or Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner.
But you want to know whom I believe is the darkhorse Heisman candidate no one is talking about? USC defensive back/wide receiver Adoree' Jackson. If he gets consistent reps on both sides of the ball, not to mention as a return man, he could become a human-highlight film, apologies to Dominique Wilkins.
I am blessed and honored to say that I will be announcing my college commitment at Santa Margarita High School at 2:45pm on March 26th.— kj costello (@kj_costello) March 20, 2015
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They haven't been on campus long, but with USC currently on a one-week break from workouts, here's a glance at how the five newest Trojans performed through the first two weeks of spring drills.
OL Chuma Edoga (6-foot-4, 285 pounds, Freshman)
The No. 21-ranked player overall in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2015, Edoga has lived up to the hype so far. Lining up as a right tackle with the No. 2 offense throughout the initial six practice sessions, he turned heads in the first week when he defeated fifth-year senior defensive lineman Claude Pelon on two consecutive reps in a one-on-one drill -- one of them in dominating fashion. As to be expected, however, he hasn't always performed on that level on a consistent basis, but his athleticism, competitiveness and willingness to mix it up has really made him stand out as a player with a very bright future. It will be interesting to watch his development throughout the remainder of the spring and on into the summer because he's flashed some unique abilities, and with the Trojans lacking ideal depth at the tackle spots, there's always a chance he could be pressed into early action. From what he's shown initially, he just might be ready for that challenge if called upon.
OL Roy Hemsley (6-6, 310, Freshman)
Lining up with the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive units at left tackle, Hemsley moves really well for a player his size -- not surprising when you consider the fact he's a former basketball player. But not having taken up football until his sophomore year at Los Angeles Windward, and not facing the stiffest of competition there, his rawness is still very apparent, and he has had his fair share of struggles. But he does look to have a lot of the key components you look for in an offensive tackle in terms of his size, length and athleticism, so with more reps in practice, as well some time in the weight room, there's reason to believe he can turn into a valuable contributor down the line.
LB Cameron Smith (6-3, 240, Freshman)
Smith has been one of the surprises of the spring -- particularly over the course of the last week of practices. He's a classic-looking inside linebacker with outstanding size and a rough-and-tumble brand of play, and that much was known before he ever stepped foot on campus. What has been somewhat of a revelation, however, is his athleticism and pass coverage ability. Lining up at Mike linebacker with the No. 2 defense behind Lamar Dawson, Smith intercepted a pass in each of the last two workouts. USC's other linebacker signees set to arrive this summer -- Porter Gustin, John Houston Jr. and Osa Masina -- have been getting most of the attention as of late, but Smith seems to be making a statement with his play that he shouldn't be forgotten.
QB Ricky Town (6-3, 205, Freshman)
Town has been the fourth quarterback in line taking reps during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods, with Cody Kessler, Max Browne and Jalen Greene taking snaps in front of him. As to be expected with an early-entrant passer, even a highly-prized one, Town has had his ups as well as his downs this spring, and at no time was this more apparent than during the team's fifth workout. He had two beautiful throws that really highlighted his arm strength and poise where he connected deep with Steven Mitchell and Isaac Whitney along the sideline, but then again, he also threw two interceptions during that session that came on passes directed at receivers who were blanketed by defenders. In any case, the physical tools are certainly there, so as his comfort level with the playbook grows, and as he gains more confidence, he has the potential to develop into a special player.
WR Isaac Whitney (6-4, 205, RS Junior)
Without a ton of depth at the wide receiver positions, Whitney has received plenty of reps this spring, and he's shown some nice skills as a taller pass-catcher with surprising speed. As an older player coming from the junior college ranks, he already possesses a college-ready body, and it's allowed him to fit in, physically, right away. There are times, however, when, still trying to soak in the playbook, Whitney seems a little unsure out there and is a step behind, and he's also had some drops. He isn't close to challenging for a starting role at this point, but the good news is that he's a hard worker who has already made strides from the time of his initial arrival at USC early in the winter, and so long as that trend continues you can expect to see him making some kind of impact as a member of the rotation in 2015.
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.
We move on to the defensive line, starting with the South Division.
Arizona: The Wildcats are expecting -- hoping strongly -- that end Reggie Gilbert will be granted a fifth year due to injury hardship. He's practicing this spring in anticipation of the NCAA doing the right thing. That would mean two of three starters will return, with Parker Zellers also back at nose tackle along with Jeff Worthy. Touted juco transfer Anthony Fotu is a good bet to replace Dan Pettinato at the other end. Pettinato, in fact, is the only player gone from the late-season depth chart, but there is an expectation some youngsters will immediately compete for playing time in the fall.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils welcome back just about every player from their late-season depth chart, other than end Marcus Hardison, though he was the unit's most productive lineman. Tashon Smallwood, Edmond Boateng and Demetrius Cherry offer experience -- 63 combined tackles last season -- and there's also massive Mo Latu as an interior option. Further, there's a chance nose tackle Jaxon Hood, who has been dealing with personal issues, could return in the fall.
Colorado: The Buffaloes welcome back three of four starters, only needing to replace tackle Juda Parker, while there are newcomers -- some with familiar faces -- also in the mix. Further, the Buffaloes, with new coordinator Jim Leavitt, could use more 3-4 looks in the fall. Returning starters are ends Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert and tackle Josh Tupou, though Tupou was arrested after an off-campus brawl last week so his status might be questionable. Samson Kafovalu is back after sitting out a year, and he was listed as a starter at defensive tackle on the post-spring depth chart. When he gets healthy, end Tyler Henington will be in the mix. Two junior college transfers, end Blake Robbins and tackle Jordan Carrell, participated in spring practices, as did "grayshirt" Leo Jackson (6-foot-3, 285 pounds).
UCLA: The Bruins lose defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, a second-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2014, but they welcome back second-team all-conference nose tackle Kenny Clark and end Eddie Vanderdoes, and it says here having a pair of athletic 300-pounders who are multi-year starters up front is typically a good thing. Jim Mora has said a lot of nice things about junior juco transfer Takkarist McKinley, who is the favorite to replace Odighizuwa. He had 2.5 sacks in limited action last season. True sophomores Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson offer depth outside -- both have pass-rushing potential -- while Eli Ankou figures to back up Clark.
USC: No team in the country is replacing a better defensive end than Leonard Williams, but the Trojans do welcome back some experience here, including two of three starters and experienced rush end Scott Felix. Antwaun Woods is back at nose tackle, though he is sitting out the spring with an injury, and there's good depth with Cody Temple and Kenny Bigelow, who missed last season with a knee injury. Devon Simmons and Claude Pelon, a pair of 295-pounders, are the likely starters at the ends. Redshirt freshman Malik Dorton and junior Jeff Miller offer smaller, quicker options on the outside, and Greg Townsend is another option. It's also possible linebacker Jabari Ruffin could get at look at defensive end when he's healthy, and it's likely one or two of the touted incoming freshmen will be the rotation.
Utah: John Pease came out of retirement to replace coordinator Kalani Sitake and coach the Utes' defensive line, but that doesn't likely mean much in terms of schematic changes up front. While there's a significant void left behind by All-American end Nate Orchard, two of four starters and plenty of experience are back, including end Hunter Dimick, who had 10 sacks in 2014 as Robin to Orchard's Batman. Inside, there's Lowell Lotulelei (younger brother of Star who flashed plenty of potential as a freshman), Filipo Mokofisi, Viliseni Fauonuku, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and Clint Shepard. Replacing Orchard is less certain. Pita Taumoepenu was Orchard's backup last season and he finished with 4.5 sacks. Another option is Jason Fanaika, while UCLA transfer Kylie Fitts and Wallace Gonzalez also should be in the mix.
With the absence of sophomore Bryce Dixon because of an undisclosed student-conduct issue, the obvious rustiness of junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick from last season’s academic ineligibility and the highly anticipated summer arrival of prep superstar Tyler Petite, Spears has helped mightily in an almost dire situation.
Because of the aforementioned depth issues, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Spears has been given an opportunity to show his stuff early in spring ball, and Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian has taken notice of his young tight end’s early contributions.
“Connor is a great fit for our system,” Sarkisian said. “He’s got long levers. He’s not the most physical guy, but with his long levers, he’s able to block well. He catches the ball well. He’s just fast enough and has a good feel for the offense. He’s really effective and a good fit for what we do.”
So how does a student-athlete whose family is steeped in Ivy League tradition leave all that academia and end up playing for one of college football’s most legendary programs?
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Vanity. Definitely my favorite sin.
- The Wildcats wide receiving corps should be strong again.
- Speaking of receivers, ASU feels like it's got a pretty good stable as well.
- Some post-practice thoughts and analysis from Cal.
- Some good Colorado football Qs and As from Kyle Ringo's chat.
- Highlights from Marcus Mariota's QB Camp with Jon Gruden.
- Oregon State is keeping its eye on this JC cornerback.
- A preview of Stanford's pro day.
- UCLA loading up on linebackers.
- Former USC running back Reggie Bush is headed back to the West Coast.
- Would Eric Rowe be a good fit in Baltimore?
- Jake Browning could make an instant impact for Washington.
- Connor Halliday is on this list of the top 10 quarterbacks in the draft.
To begin with, gone are the senior's trademark dreadlocks. Calling it a "business decision," and with a desire to avoid the time and energy it took to maintain the hairstyle, he opted to go with a shorter-cropped 'do immediately following the Trojans' Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska last December.
But he's also been drawing attention for another, much more important reason as far as the Trojans' coaches are concerned, and that's because of his play.
Having been challenged directly by coach Steve Sarkisian following a lackluster showing on Day 1 of spring ball, Seymour has responded with five consecutive outstanding workouts.
"I came out a little flat on the first day, and that's unacceptable for a senior," Seymour said. "So, I just bounced back the second day and played with energy from then on. I feel really good now. I just had to come out here and take on that leadership role, and just compete."
Performing at a consistently high level, Seymour has been a force in coverage in recent days, making a number of standout plays, including a highlight-reel interception in the corner of the end zone this past Saturday.
A seasoned veteran with 22 starts under his belt, part of the reason for Seymour's uptick in production has been his refusal to rest on his laurels, and instead focus his attention on continuing to get better, even as a senior -- something he believes that he's done.
"I've improved on just being a technician and playing with more confidence," Seymour said. "Confidence can really take your game through the roof, so I've been playing with more confidence, trusting what I see on the field, and like I said, technique, technique, technique ... not just relying on athletic ability."
Another factor contributing to Seymour's performance has been his health. Struck down with a stomach virus late last summer that forced him to spend six days in the hospital and miss a portion of fall camp, he was able to return in time to start in the Trojans' opener against Fresno State. But having missed time on the practice field, in addition to losing a fair amount of weight, it was almost as though he was playing catch-up, physically, for much of the season.
Now healthy, in-shape and weighing in at his target-weight of 185 pounds, Seymour says he's never felt better.
"I do feel better physically," Seymour said. "I feel more solid, I have a little more energy and I just feel way better, so this is going to be a great year for myself, and for the whole secondary."
And Seymour isn't off-base in his thinking. The performance of the USC defensive backs has been one of the highlights of the spring so far.
Lining up opposite Seymour in the starting lineup is sophomore two-way sensation Adoree' Jackson, who looks to be well on his way to taking the next step in his development as one of the nation's top cornerbacks, while safeties John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay III have both shown improvement this spring as well. Chris Hawkins and Jonathan Lockett, meanwhile, have been showing off their versatility, spending time at safety as well as at their normal cornerback position, looking sharp at both spots. Cornerback Lamont Simmons is another player who appears to be making strides.
As the elder statesman of the unit, Seymour has played his part in helping to bring the group together, and in particular, making sure everyone is on the same page.
"We're definitely getting better every day that we're out here," Seymour said. "We put a big emphasis on finishing and on communicating. Without communication, we're nothing, and we're doing a much better job at that, so that's playing a big role."
This summer, the Trojans add even more talent to the equation in the secondary in the form of incoming freshmen Iman Marshall, Ykili Ross, Marvell Tell and Isaiah Langley. Couple that with the promise that Seymour, as well as the other USC defensive backs are showing this spring, and there certainly appears to be plenty of reason for optimism.
"We have high expectations," Seymour said, "and the great recruits coming will definitely help us, too. And we've got Lockett moving around between safety and corner, Chris moving between safety and corner, and we're going to be able to rotate the new guys in, and the goal is that we'll all play for a national championship."
May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.
- Arizona picked up a commitment from a highly-regarded quarterback prospect.
- Arizona State WR Cameron Smith will miss the 2015 season due to a knee injury.
- California WR Chris Harper explained his decision to leave early for the NFL draft.
- For Colorado fans, here's a video of a grandfather-grandson relationship worth watching.
- Being drafted No. 1 overall isn't the most important thing for Marcus Mariota.
- Here's a take on former Oregon State QB Sean Mannion and what an ideal draft spot would be.
- Stanford coach David Shaw joined The Audible (podcast) at Foxsports.com.
- Here are some questions pertaining to UCLA football ahead of spring practice.
- Yeah, USC is loaded in the secondary.
- Former Utah TE Westlee Tonga gave an interview Utes fans might be interested in.
- Taking a look at some of the most important players at Washington.
- A look back at Washington State's draft class 10 years ago.
WeAreSC staffers discuss spring ball topics after two weeks of practice sessions:
1. Give your top offensive/defensive performer.
Garry Paskwietz: For the top offensive player I’m going with Cody Kessler. It was tempting to go with JuJu Smith because Smith has raised his game to the point where there doesn’t appear to be any doubt that he will be the go-to receiver as an 18-year-old sophomore. But Kessler has just steadily gone about his business of being the undisputed leader of this team and that fact shouldn’t be taken for granted. On the defensive side, Adoree' Jackson is the one who has stood out for me.
Johnny Curren: On offense I’m going with Max Tuerk. He’s been so solid at center and as the leader of what is a much deeper offensive line unit than we’ve seen as of late. He’s done a stellar job of making sure that everyone is on the same page. On defense, I’m going with Su'a Cravens. A unique athlete with outstanding football instincts, he’s looking better than ever, making plays all over the field. Appearing to be completely at home at his strongside linebacker spot after making the transition from safety last fall, he’s a natural leader-by-example who I think has really seized the role from Leonard Williams as the face of the defense.
Greg Katz: The top offensive performer to me thus far is the obvious -- Kessler. Outside of a difficult day of interceptions last Saturday afternoon in the Coliseum, Kessler has been highly efficient and the expected club leader. A close second for me would be senior center Max Tuerk, who is living up to his preseason hype. As for defense, it’s a tie. I’ll go with Cravens and Jackson, both of whom have been nails in run support and pass coverage.
2. What has been the biggest surprise?
GP: The biggest surprise so far has been the solid play from so many members of the secondary. Jackson was noted above for his performance as he continues to split time on offense and Kevon Seymour looks real comfortable on the other side as a veteran senior. I also like what I see from John Plattenburg as he looks to lock down one of the safety spots. But what really makes the secondary stand out is how deep the good play has been, extending to guys like Leon McQuay, Chris Hawkins and Jonathan Lockett.
JC: The play of the defensive backs. Jackson has played as everyone figured he would at cornerback, and that’s lights out, but what has been somewhat unexpected is just how well Seymour has performed on the other side. He’s really upped his level of play. At safety, Plattenburg has shined, drawing praise from coach Steve Sarkisian, and McQuay looks to have improved as well. Hawkins and Lockett have shown off their versatility, taking reps at cornerback and safety, and Lamont Simmons has flashed at times too.
GK: While most I would suspect will go with senior linebacker Lamar Dawson, I am going with true freshman offensive tackle Chuma Edoga. Edoga has shown me the toughness and ability to compete, and he has moved bodies like a veteran. No, he isn’t a finished product and is not perfect, but he certainly isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there against some very seasoned veterans. Edoga will play in 2015.
3. Which position battle has been the most compelling?
GP: The competition for the slot receiver role has been interesting. Steven Mitchell has taken the lead with the best play we’ve seen from him since he returned from his knee injury. He brings a real explosive element to the position. Ajene Harris is just a playmaker although he’s been bothered somewhat by a hamstring injury. And don’t forget Jackson, as Sarkisian clearly wants to look at using Jackson more on offense and that role will come primarily from the slot.
JC: I think the competition at middle linebacker has been extremely entertaining to watch. Dawson, to be certain, looks to have a sizable lead here, and for good reason. The fifth-year senior is playing arguably better than ever after redshirting in 2014 due to his knee injury. In somewhat of a surprise, however, early-entrant freshman Cameron Smith has also turned heads, particularly over the last week. I don’t expect him to start, but I think that he’s shown that he just might be able to contribute early in his career.
GK: I think the wide receiver spot is the most compelling for me because the position is so loaded and the competition so intense. Despite the losses of some very talented performers like Nelson Agholor, there has been fierce competition between sophomores JuJu Smith, Mitchell, Jackson, and junior Isaac Whitney. Add Harris when he is back healthy (hamstring). The Trojans certainly aren’t lacking with this unit.
4. Name one under-the-radar player who has caught your eye.
GP: There are some good candidates here ranging from Dawson to Hawkins to Soma Vainuku but I’m going with Nico Falah, who has stood out along the reserve group of offensive linemen and has even taken time with the first unit at left tackle (he’s also played right guard). Falah has been hampered by injuries to this point in his USC career but we’re seeing how effective he can be when healthy.
JC: Falah. Buried on the depth chart and hampered by injuries throughout his time on campus up until now, the redshirt sophomore was a virtual afterthought when it came to discussing the offensive line heading into the spring. Surprisingly, though, he’s shown well at left tackle, taking reps with the No. 1 and No. 2 units. I don’t necessarily think that he will start there, but I do think that he’s shown that, for the first time in his career, he can be relied upon to step in and contribute.
GK: Although he was a starter last season,Plattenburg has raised his game and Sarkisian has said as much. A student of the game, Plattenburg is reacting more than thinking and that is a true sign of progress. Behind Plattenburg in the under-the-radar department for me would be sophomore preferred walk-on tight end Connor Spears, who has demonstrated that he belongs in the tight end mix and can be a good support player next season.
TBD Washington Boise State 1:00 AM ET Colorado Hawaii 8:00 PM ET Weber State Oregon State
TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Portland State Washington State TBD Grambling State California TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Virginia UCLA TBD Arkansas State USC TBD Eastern Washington Oregon