The Trojans recently wrapped up spring drills under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian and here’s an overview of what took place.
The first thing you noticed about Sarkisian this spring was that he had a plan. With the roster numbers still limited due to sanctions, along with the normal array of injuries this time of year, Sarkisian knew that full-scale practices with live tackling were not a realistic option.
Instead he focused on the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball and getting players healthy for the fall. The plan included morning walk-throughs, along with multiple walk-through teaching sessions built in to each practice. When combined with classroom film work, the walk-throughs allowed even the injured players to keep up as much as possible with the mental work that was being done.
There was definitely a teaching atmosphere from the staff, which is comprised of a lot of former players. If there is ever a staff game held, the Trojans would field a pretty good team. And there is an enthusiastic “gym-rat” quality among the coaches when they are working with players or talking about getting to watch film to break things down. With so many of coaches having been together recently at Washington, there is also a foundation of chemistry that is evident as well.
Perhaps the most notable thing that Sarkisian accomplished this spring, however, was to get the players to buy-in from the start. This is not something to be overlooked. Sarkisian took over the job in December under emotional circumstances and he showed a deft touch in handling the team after the departure of Ed Orgeron. By the time spring drills rolled around, the players were ready to hit the field and play for him, which meant a lot of work got done this spring.
The biggest news from spring was the implementation of the up-tempo style of play, which impacts everything from huddling to player substitutions and conditioning. It is a lot to take in and Sarkisian wasted no time in setting the pace at roughly 120 plays per day, as opposed to the 75-80 that would have been run in previous years. USC fans were hoping to see a little more from the offense during the spring game but a vanilla playsheet and less-than-crisp execution left the fans wanting more. Sarkisian made it clear that he expects more too, and there certainly is plenty of talent available to make that happen.
There was a quarterback competition this spring, but there really wasn’t. Technically, Cody Kessler held on to his job with the official announcement coming from Sarkisian last week but there was never any real doubt about the outcome. Kessler came into the spring as the incumbent who finished the season strong. He was the clear leader of the team, but there was a challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne who has a ton of potential and came into spring ready to go.
Kessler transitioned smoothly to the new offense and Sarkisian praised his decision making, presence in the locker room and arm strength. Browne improved too but not as much as Kessler and the decision was clear to see on the field. Early enrollee true freshman Jalen Greene showed a strong arm, though not always accurate, and some good moves in and around the pocket. It will be interesting to watch his development.
One of the big questions coming into spring was the rotation at running back. Sarkisian had primarily used a “bell-cow” tailback in his time at Washington but his current USC roster had several options available at the position. At this point it appears as if Javorius Allen and Tre Madden have secured spots at the top of the rotation as they were listed as co-starters on the end-of-spring depth chart. This move makes sense, Allen picked up where he left off last fall as the team MVP while Madden made a strong comeback after missing time last fall with a hamstring injury.
Ty Isaac missed a lot of time due to injury this spring and probably didn’t do enough to lock down a spot in the rotation. Justin Davis sat out all of spring rehabbing from injury but he will be given every opportunity to see if he can earn some time in fall camp. There were a few D.J. Morgan sightings in walk-throughs although it’s still unclear where things stand in terms of his potential return. Both fullbacks -- Jahleel Pinner and Soma Vainuku -- saw limited action in this system, although each had a few reps carrying the ball.
Nelson Agholor was the best player on the field with a work ethic that definitely set the tone. There is a strong chemistry between Agholor and Kessler, which makes sense since they are also roommates. Darreus Rogers ended spring on a high note and is the clear front-runner to start opposite Nelson. Both Victor Blackwell and George Farmer, who looked good coming back from knee surgery, showed enough to be in the rotation this fall. Steven Mitchell -- who is rehabbing a knee injury -- was limited to walk-through drills this spring but is expected to be fine for the fall. Former walk-on George Katrib earned a scholarship and a spot with the first unit on the end-of-spring depth chart based on his play in spring.
Randall Telfer was out of action the entire spring recovering from a knee injury so that meant an extended audition for Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and he took advantage of it. Cope-Fitzpatrick had waited his turn for two years and seems ready for a bigger role. Walk-on Chris Willson is a former quarterback who continues to improve after the position switch to tight end.
This was perhaps the position group that needed to get settled the most and how successful that was is still to be determined. There was a lot of good, namely that Max Tuerk took care of the top priority by claiming the center spot. You can’t understate how important that was. Chad Wheeler didn’t skip a beat in holding onto the vital left tackle spot, which was also key. And then there was a pleasant development with Zach Banner showing up with improved agility after surgeries on both hips last fall. Banner was quickly moved to the first unit at right tackle and looks to be there heading into fall. What remains unsettled are the two guard spots. Khaliel Rodgers (RG) and Toa Lobendahn (LG) both did enough to earn starting spots in spring but it remains to be seen what will happen in the fall when veterans Aundrey Walker and Jordan Simmons return from injuries. Walker, the incumbent starter at right guard with 18 career starts under his belt, could be a valuable veteran presence in the lineup.
While so much attention was being paid to the new up-tempo offense, the USC defense was quietly installing new schemes of their own. There are variations of the 4-3 and the 3-4, including a rush end and a strongside linebacker who can also be a stand-up end. During the spring game, the defense showed a lot of promise with seven sacks and no touchdowns for the offense.
One of the first things that jumps out when seeing the Trojans defense is the huge defensive front, particularly along the interior. And that’s without All-American Leonard Williams, who sat out the spring rehabbing a labrum injury. Antwaun Woods was consistently praised by Sarkisian for his solid play and he looks to be the anchor of the line at the nose tackle spot. Junior college transfer Claude Pelon came on strong the final two weeks of spring and had a pair of sacks in the spring game while Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons also showed he can be a productive body in the middle. When you add Kenny Bigelow as a reserve at nose as well as Greg Townsend, who continues to get healthy, the Trojans suddenly have a nice rotation in the middle of the line.
At rush end, Scott Starr was another pleasant surprise as he ran with the first unit throughout spring and showed good energy. J.R. Tavai missed some time with injury but he is a proven and versatile guy who can also move inside if needed. Charles Burks has some pass rushing skills and he also saw time both on the inside and outside.
On the opening drive of the spring game the offense drove the ball inside the five-yard line and looked poised to score until Hayes Pullard broke through the line to force a tackle-for-loss and eventual field goal. He’s the leader of the USC defense in every way and a key teaching aide for the coaches this spring as they installed the new defense. Anthony Sarao worked with the first unit alongside Pullard while Lamar Dawson sat out spring with an injury. Michael Hutchings was behind Hayes until injuring his wrist the final week of spring. At the strongside spot, it was the most competitive battle of camp as Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin ended up listed as co-starters on the depth chart.
This has a chance to be a much improved group. Josh Shaw did not play due to a stress fracture in his foot but he did say he will be at corner when he returns in the fall. There had been some question about where Shaw would line up, although the coaches say he could still see time at safety if needed. With Shaw out, Kevon Seymour was at one corner spot and looked to have taken a step up from last year, while redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins did enough to be in the rotation once the season starts. At safety, Su'a Cravens is set at one spot but he sat out the last half of spring with a knee injury. Leon McQuay III was getting the reps opposite Cravens and Gerald Bowman returned to the field after his shoulder injury to look strong over the final two weeks.
There wasn’t a lot of work done on live punt or kickoff drills but placekicker Andre Heidari did hit 4-of-5 field goals in the spring game.