USC Trojans: George Farmer
For Victor Blackwell, a wide receiver heading into his redshirt sophomore season for the Trojans, that means realizing what’s at stake this fall -- a whole lot of opportunity waiting beyond the two projected starters.
The Trojans head into the season with Marqise Lee -- the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner -- and Nelson Agholor established as the starters. There is uncertainty beyond them, though. George Farmer was positioning himself for the No. 3 receiver role in spring ball before a knee injury that will cause him to miss the 2013 season. There was also a similar injury in recent weeks to incoming freshman Steven Mitchell, which means the Trojans will enter the season with five scholarship receivers.
Blackwell, the No. 10 receiver in the nation when he signed in 2011, has waited a long time for this opportunity. He was known as an explosive playmaker at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, where he played with current USC quarterback Max Wittek and averaged 19.5 yards per reception as a senior with 14 touchdowns.
Blackwell redshirted in his first year at USC and had one catch for nine yards as a redshirt freshman. He sat and watched while Robert Woods and Lee produced eye-popping stats, paying attention to how they did it.
“I just take notes on how Robert and Marqise act or how they handle certain situations,” Blackwell said. “I watch how they maintain their composure and just attack every day. They work hard and grind, every single day.”
It is that consistent level of performance which seems to be the next step for Blackwell in his development at USC. There have been flashes of big-play ability, but they haven’t taken place at a level that suits USC coach Lane Kiffin. In his end-of-spring news conference, Kiffin said the coaches have talked with Blackwell about the need for consistency, and Blackwell heard the message loud and clear.
“To me, consistency means someone who elevates his game, who comes out and dominates every day like Marqise, Robert and Nelson,” Blackwell said. “It means coming out every day and working to better your craft.”
Blackwell did have the benefit of one very good day this spring, putting up big numbers in the Trojans' spring game in the Coliseum. With seven catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, Blackwell showcased the skills that make him a potential game-breaker.
“It was great to be able to do that in the spring game,” Blackwell said. “I’m just thankful the coaches gave me the opportunity to make plays and show what I can do. I’m grateful for it but I want more, I need more, I’m hungry.”
That kind of hunger can build for a former prep All-American who finds himself waiting his turn in college, which has been trying at times for Blackwell.
“The hardest part about that process is to stay believing in yourself as the best receiver and telling yourself that you’re one of the tops at what you do,” Blackwell said. “Now that my opportunity is here I’m working hard this summer to go out and get it. I feel like that No. 3 spot is waiting for me and I need to go claim it. I’m getting faster and quicker and I need to work on my hands just so I’m more confident about catching the ball and being elusive with the ball in my hands. I’m willing to do whatever the coaches need from me to make the team better.”
Tons of talent at WR, not a lot of depth
The USC receiver corps was dealt a significant blow in the second throwing session of the summer when promising freshman Steven Mitchell went down with a torn ACL that will cause him to miss the entire 2013 season. Already without the services of George Farmer -- who suffered the same injury this spring -- the Trojans now have just five active scholarship wide receivers on the current roster.
Wittek returns to action, QB competition back on in full effect
The most notable player missing from the Trojans' early passing sessions was quarterback Max Wittek, who battled an apparent case of mononucleosis. The only member of the quarterback competition with starting experience returned to action this past Friday and looked sharp after shaking off some early rust.
The other two members of the quarterback competition -- fellow redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler and early entrant freshman Max Browne -- have performed solidly this offseason. Kessler, in particular, has picked up right where he left off in the spring, looking poised and in command while also throwing with fantastic accuracy. Meanwhile, Browne has continued to make tremendous strides, neither looking nor playing like a green first-year youngster.
With Wittek having returned to compete alongside Kessler and Browne, the race for the role of USC's starting quarterback is underway once again. And with all three players back out there pushing each other, there’s reason for optimism, regardless of who the eventual starter is.
Key contributors back from injury
While the loss of Mitchell marked the obvious low point of the workouts so far, the return of a number of players who missed all, or a portion, of the spring due to injury has been one of the great positives. Fullback Soma Vainuku, offensive lineman Chad Wheeler, tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr., cornerbacks Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour, as well as safeties Dion Bailey, Gerald Bowman and Su'a Cravens are just some of the players who have been spotted back in action. It’s provided a big shot in the arm for a team somewhat short in terms of numbers.
The most talked about return has been that of Bailey, who was out for the entire spring due to postseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. Moving over to free safety after spending the last two seasons as the team’s starting strongside linebacker, he’s looked comfortable, and the competition between he, Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III for the starting job is sure to be one of most closely watched position battles of the summer and fall.
Shaw still at safety
With Lane Kiffin underwhelmed by the production of the cornerback unit this past spring, the Trojans head coach noted on more than one occasion that the coaching staff was considering moving redshirt junior Josh Shaw back over from his strong safety spot to corner -- not a huge surprise considering he made seven starts at the position in 2012.
So far, however, there’s been no sign of the former Palmdale (Calif.) standout making that change. Lining up at strong safety during every passing session, he’s currently locked in a position battle with Cravens and Bowman. And while things could always change later in the summer or even during fall camp, it looks as if Shaw has settled in at safety at this time and that Kiffin will ride with what he currently has at cornerback -- collection that includes Anthony Brown, Ryan Dillard, Harris, Chris Hawkins, Ryan Henderson, Seymour and Devian Shelton.
Sightings of the newest freshmen
All six of the Trojans newest freshmen additions are now on campus, and they’ve slowly begun to make their presence felt in the workouts. It was Mitchell who made the biggest impact early on with his unique playmaking skills, giving an all-too-brief glimpse of the kind of talent that the USC offense will have at its disposal down the line. Inside linebacker Michael Hutchings has impressed as well. Figuring to play a key role as the potential backup at the MIKE linebacker spot to Hayes Pullard, he certainly looks the part of an imposing run-stopper with a nice combination of athleticism and instincts to boot. Outside linebacker Quinton Powell has already shown off some nice pass-rush skills during the 11-on-11 periods. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, running back Ty Isaac is as big as advertised while also showcasing a surprising burst for a player his size. Rounding out the group, offensive tackle Nico Falah and guard Khaliel Rodgers have also been quick to jump into the action, gaining valuable tutelage from veterans such as Kevin Graf and John Martinez.
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Lee the leader
But with Lee’s trusted quarterback Matt Barkley now a Philadelphia Eagle and his receiving counterpart Robert Woods a Buffalo Bill, he has a somewhat unfamiliar cast around him heading into the 2013 season. Fortunately for the Trojans, Lee clicked with the new passers right off the bat and looked better than ever this spring, even after missing several workouts with a minor knee injury. How he continues to mesh with those new faces this offseason certainly figures to play a crucial part in determining how he, and the entire offense, performs this season – particularly early on. Just as importantly, with veterans such as Barkley and Woods gone – not to mention Khaled Holmes and T.J. McDonald – Lee is now the irrefutable face of the program, and he’ll need to make his presence felt as the team’s unquestioned leader for the first time. It's a role he seemed to embrace this past March and April.
Agholor’s time to shine
The departure of Woods certainly dealt a blow to the USC offense, but it also opened the door for someone else to come in and take the No. 2 receiver job, and that’s precisely what Nelson Agholor did this spring, and in convincing fashion. Building off of a freshman campaign in which he made 19 receptions for 340 yards and two touchdowns, the Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep graduate made highlight play after highlight play on a daily basis, emerging as arguably the most consistent performer of the entire spring. A technician and big-play threat all rolled into one, with what he showed – and assuming he continues to develop through the summer and on into fall camp – there’s reason to believe that he’s on the verge of breaking out in 2013.
No. 3 WR job up for grabs
With Lee and Agholor firmly entrenched as the starters, everyone else has been left battling for the role as the team’s No. 3 receiver, and it’s still wide open at this point – particularly with George Farmer sidelined for the season with a torn ACL. It’s a fierce competition featuring a host of talented candidates ready to make a significant impact for the first time as Trojans, and it figures to heat up even more once fall camp begins in August.
Toward the end of the spring, Victor Blackwell seemed to make the biggest statement with his play. Emerging as a reliable pass-catcher with speed to boot, he caught seven passes for 155 yards and one touchdown in the spring game. When the post-spring depth chart was released, however, Blackwell found himself sitting behind promising early-entrant freshman Darreus Rogers. Extremely physical and athletic, Rogers has through-the-roof potential, and the coaches are obviously very interested to see how he comes along over the next few months. Veteran redshirt senior De’Von Flournoy was another solid, all-around option who showed well. And then there’s Steven Mitchell, an incoming freshman out of Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany. Already making a splash in the team’s offseason passing sessions, he has game-breaking ability. He could end up factoring into the discussion here more than people might have previously expected.
Low on depth, high on talent at tight end
With the loss of Christian Thomas to medical retirement on top of the uncertain status of Junior Pomee because of some off the field problems, the Trojans currently find themselves with just three tight ends on scholarship. Fortunately for Lane Kiffin and Co., all three of those players are extremely skilled. Garnering the lion’s share of the attention has been redshirt juniors Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, and justifiably so. Two seasoned players who have split the bulk of the reps at the position for the past two years, they’re both phenomenal athletes with standout receiving skills. Throw in the emergence of sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick this spring and the USC offense now has a formidable trio of tight ends to call upon. The big question is, will it? As a group, the tight ends made just 43 receptions in 2012 – a number that seems glaringly low when you consider the talent at the position. The ball did seem to head their way with greater frequency this spring, particularly in the final scrimmage, when Cope-Fitzpatrick collected six grabs. Whether or not that trend continues into the fall remains to be seen.
Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne all had their moments this past spring, but after 15 workouts, USC head coach Lane Kiffin decided that this was a battle that simply needed more time. It was Kessler, right from the get-go, who made the biggest statement with his play, most notably in the scrimmages. Wittek suffered a MCL sprain that caused him to miss a week of workouts, but with tremendous physical skills, he showed enough when he was healthy to keep this competition too close to call. Showing flashes of the talent that made him such a prized commodity coming out of high school, Browne isn’t out if it yet, either, and there’s no telling how far he just might take his game in the coming weeks. And that goes for all three quarterbacks, because with almost three months remaining until the start of fall camp, how they develop this summer will play a key part in determining who will ultimately line up behind center in 2013.
With Nickell Robey declaring early for the NFL draft and Josh Shaw making the move back to safety, the Trojans entered spring ball needing to find two new starting cornerbacks. On the post-spring depth chart, Anthony Brown was listed first on one side, with Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour sharing the other. But with Kiffin openly expressing his disappointment with the performance of this unit, it’s safe to say that both starting jobs remain open for the taking, with Chris Hawkins, Devian Shelton and Ryan Henderson also factoring into the conversation. Additionally, there’s a very real possibility that Shaw will switch back over to cornerback, where he started seven games in 2012. He’s still been lining up at safety during the offseason throwing sessions, though. Kiffin has also opened up the possibility of using star receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor here.
Taking the place of three-year starters T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling -- now in the NFL -- for the majority of the spring was Shaw at strong safety and Demetrius Wright at free safety. Two impressive veteran athletes, both ultimately wound up sharing the top spot at their respective positions on the post-spring depth chart with a couple of early entrant freshmen who made a lightning-quick transition to the college game in strong safety Su'a Cravens and free safety Leon McQuay III. Complicating matters further, Dion Bailey and Gerald Bowman are set to return later this summer from injury, and both figure to challenge for a starting role -- particularly Bailey, who will make the transition from linebacker to strong safety. With so much talent, the potential move of Shaw back over to cornerback certainly makes sense on a number of levels.
MVP -- QB Cody Kessler: Nobody entered the spring with more to prove, and Kessler made a huge statement by rising to the occasion. Performing on a consistently high level from practice No. 1 all the way to practice No. 15, he showed that while he might not have the size of his two counterparts in the quarterback battle -- Max Wittek and Max Browne -- what he does possess is grit, a remarkable football IQ and the ability to simply get the job done. Referred to as a ‘gamer’ by USC head coach Lane Kiffin on more than one occasion, he was particularly stellar in the team’s scrimmages, putting up big numbers and never throwing a single interception. More than that, he emerged as a leader who the rest of the team really seemed to respond to. -- Johnny Curren
Top offensive performer -- WR Nelson Agholor: With the No. 2 receiver job up for grabs, Agholor asserted himself early as the clear choice. Building off a productive freshman campaign, he shined throughout the spring, and a practice didn’t seem to go by without the Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep product coming up with at least one highlight play that caught everyone’s attention. Showcasing game-breaking ability to go along with reliable hands, he just might allow everyone to get over the loss of Robert Woods just a tad bit sooner than imagined. -- JC
RB Justin Davis (6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Fr.)
It’s not as if Davis, an early entrant who enrolled at USC just this past January, arrived on campus without plenty of accolades. But with veterans such as Silas Redd already entrenched at tailback, he didn’t figure to make an overly significant immediate impact. Taking advantage of the increased opportunity that came with injuries to both Redd and D.J. Morgan, the Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln product was arguably the top tailback of the spring. Showcasing a fundamentally sound north-south running style with plenty of physicality, USC head coach Lane Kiffin has stated that the young freshman has the ability to start right off the bat this fall, and listed him along with Redd and Madden atop the post-spring depth chart Monday.
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Standout performers: Looking every bit a suitable replacement for departed wide receiver Robert Woods, sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor hauled in seven receptions for 116 yards and two touchdowns of 1 and 44 yards, respectively. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler passed for three touchdowns and a game-high 242 yards, completing 15 of 22 pass attempts. Defensively, senior free safety Demetrius Wright had two interceptions while sophomore defensive tackle Leonard Williams had a team-high six tackles.
Biggest play: Early in the first quarter, Kessler, who has battled redshirt sophomore Max Wittek all spring for the starting quarterback position, connected with Lee on a 70-yard touchdown strike.
Biggest surprise: Former Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei wide receiver Victor Blackwell, a redshirt sophomore, accounted for seven receptions for 155 yards and a 29-yard touchdown. Blackwell made a case for himself as the No. 3 receiver, especially after another candidate, junior George Farmer, suffered a season-ending ACL/MCL injury late in the spring.
Spring game final analysis: The heralded receiving duo of Lee and Agholor lived up to the type, accounting for a combined 264 yards and four touchdowns. USC coach Lane Kiffin has said he won’t name a starting quarterback until fall camp, but Kessler had the edge over Wittek on Saturday in passing yardage (242-145) and touchdown passes (3-2). Kessler did not thrown an interception while Wittek tossed two picks. Defensively, the Trojans' secondary looked vulnerable to the pass while the front seven applied good pressure and was stout against the running game. Senior defensive end Morgan Breslin was a force off the edge.
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The news was more dire for Farmer after Kiffin confirmed the earlier media reports of a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, which will force him to miss the 2013 season. For Cravens, he has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery Friday. The injury is the same as the one suffered by Silas Redd. Cravens is expected to miss 4-6 weeks and will be back in plenty of time for fall camp.
The Trojans entered the Thursday practice session with 20 players out of action because of injury and two more left practice – Torin Harris and Cyrus Hobbi.
“I don’t see any way we could practice like this in the fall. We wouldn’t be able to play a game,” Kiffin said. “Of the 22 guys who ended up being out today, 18 of them are scholarship players. With the roster reductions we already have we would not be able to give up that many players. We will start fall camp practicing this way, but I don’t think we will end fall camp this way.”
There was some good news on the injury front as Marqise Lee returned, albeit in a limited role, after missing two-and-a-half weeks with a knee injury. Lee seemed to be running fine with no major issues but he was held out of contact team drills. Kevon Seymour and Jordan Simmons also returned to action.
“Marqise was back, which was obviously good to see,” Kiffin said. “He basically took part in the first hour of practice and we’ll add to him as we go.”
George Uko was out today and J.R. Tavai took his spot with the first unit at defensive end. During the final team drill, Aundrey Walker was out and Max Tuerk had moved to center with Hobbi out, so the first unit left side of the line was walk-on Nathan Guertler at tackle and Giovanni Di Poalo at guard.
With Farmer out, that means opportunities for players such as Victor Blackwell and De’Von Flournoy along with first-year players Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Kiffin also made sure to note the high level of play from Nelson Agholor this spring when discussing the receiver group.
USC fans who had watched Farmer fight through injuries during his first two years on campus had been encouraged when he got off to a strong start in spring ball. There was a lot of anticipation to finally see the former No. 1-ranked receiver recruit in action, and Farmer made it clear that his improved health was a big reason for his better play. Even USC coach Lane Kiffin had commented about how Farmer was playing well and creating a role for himself in the offense.
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“It was a very physical practice,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I liked the defensive mentality at the end in the goal-line drill. It’s been a very competitive spring. It reminds me of the spring when we first got here. We need that to establish a competitive mindset.”
As Kiffin mentioned, the Trojans ended practice with a goal-line drill that got started with Hayes Pullard stuffing a run up the middle by Buck Allen. Justin Davis tried to slash into the end zone, but J.R. Tavai came across the line and knocked the ball out as he was bringing Davis to the ground, although Randall Telfer recovered for the offense. Davis did punch in a score at the end for the offense. There was also a little skirmish between a few offensive and defensive players after one play.
“It’s always a tough line between physical play and getting penalties with the goal-line drill,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin speaks with Enfield
Kiffin said he talked with new USC basketball coach Andy Enfield on Sunday night, prior to the announcement that Enfield had taken the job.
“I talked to him about the program and about working with Pat (Haden) and Max (Nikias),” Kiffin said. “I think it’s a great hire. He brings an exciting style of play and kids will want to play in that style. He’s also a guy who understands the academic side of being at a private school.”
Brady on campus
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady worked out on the USC campus Tuesday, throwing passes to his new receiver, Danny Amendola. Kiffin said it is common for NFL quarterbacks to use the USC facilities in the offseason, mentioning Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Matt Cassel as players who had thrown recently on the USC field.
* Anthony Brown knocked away a pass at the sideline intended for Nelson Agholor. Brown has put together a very solid spring while consistently in the lineup as one of the starting corners.
* A few plays later, however, Brown went for a pick on a rope thrown over the middle by Max Wittek and missed, allowing De’Von Flournoy to go for a long gain. Flournoy also had a touchdown later in the drill when he caught a pass from Max Browne and split the safeties with his speed.
* Victor Blackwell caught a short pass and got loose from Torin Harris with a nice shake move.
* Kevin Greene had a sack on Cody Kessler.
* Ryan Henderson had a pick off Kessler, who was trying to get the ball to Blackwell.
* George Uko had a nice play to move along the line of scrimmage in pursuit of Davis and hold him to no gain.
* Davis provided yet another dazzling touchdown run, this one a 45-yarder behind a block from Kevin Graf.
* Allen had a 20-yard gain down the left sideline thanks to Jahleel Pinner, who got one block at the line and then hustled down field to get another block.
* Browne hooked up on a 25-yard pass to walk-on Robby Kolanz on the right sideline.
Notables in attendance
Nico Falah, Steven Mitchell, Adoree’ Jackson, Dwight Williams, Chase Blakley
But in a spring marked by change, a new-and-improved Farmer has emerged, performing at a higher and more consistent level than ever, and it couldn’t be happening at a better time. After all, Robert Woods is off to the NFL, and USC coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans’ offense need capable receivers opposite 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee.
With so much at stake, Farmer is fully aware of the opportunity that lies in front of him.
“This is a big spring for me -- very big,” Farmer said following Saturday’s scrimmage, where his 47-yard reception was one of the day’s highlights.
But Farmer isn’t showing any signs of cracking under the pressure. On the contrary, he seems to be thriving under it.
“George is making plays,” Kiffin said. “We need him to make the hard plays -- down the field, to go up and get the ball and take it away and be physical. We know how fast he is, we know he can run by people, but you have to make those plays, and he’s doing that.”
Of course, it’s not as if Farmer’s play is coming as a complete surprise. Hailing from Gardena (Calif.) Serra, where he played alongside Woods and Lee, he had 65 receptions for 1,514 yards and 21 total touchdowns in his senior year. He arrived at USC in 2011 with arguably more fanfare than either of his high school teammates.
The reason for the sudden turnaround in his level of play is anything but a mystery -- he's the healthiest he's been in what seems like forever.
“I feel great,” said Farmer, a former standout prep sprinter who will compete for the USC track and field team later this spring. “I feel a lot more fluid, my legs are back up under me and I feel like I’m just back to my normal speed. I’m playing fast again. It feels really good to be out here competing with my brothers on the field.”
A thickly built athlete with a 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, Farmer has come to understand that unlike some players who can just roll out of bed ready to play, he needs to take extra precautions. As such, in addition to working hard this offseason to push his body to the limits, he also made sure that he spent plenty of time in the training room.
“I’m a very heavy-set type of person, and I realized that I have to stay and get rehab -- not just for the sake of rehabbing, but for injury prevention, and staying in there and preventing my injuries before they happen,” Farmer said.
Now finally close to where he wants to be physically, Farmer has been able to more fully develop the other aspects of his game, including the mental side, something USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin has noticed.
“We put him on the board, ask him questions, and he’s on it,” Martin said. “He’s very smart, he understands what to do -- it’s just getting him a lot of reps. You still have to remember that last year was really his first year of college football playing at wide receiver. And now, in his second year … the spring time, this is where guys grow.”
And growing is something Farmer has done plenty of this March, providing at least some evidence suggesting he might be ready to step into the rotation at receiver next fall and make an impact.
But before then, there's still a lot more work to be done, and a lot more to prove on the field.
“Right now I’m just focused on getting out to practice, executing my assignments and doing what the coaches tell me,” Farmer said. "This is going to get me right for fall camp so I can just come out on fire, and we can just move forward from there. Right now, though, the only thing that I’m focused on is spring ball.”
There was plenty of scoring in the scrimmage, including two touchdowns each from Nelson Agholor (four catches for 93 yards) and Justin Davis (11 rushes, 54 yards).
Agholor has scored at least one long touchdown in each of the three spring scrimmages so far. Today, it was a 59-yard effort on the opening series on a pretty pass from Cody Kessler down the right sideline.
It was the second eye-opening practice in a row for Davis. Not only did he get into the end zone twice but his most impressive run might have been when he bowled over Leon McQuay III on an 11-yard gain in the red zone.
Both quarterbacks did well too. In addition to the opening touchdown to Agholor, Kessler also had a scoring pass courtesy of a great effort from Victor Blackwell. With the offense at the 25-yard line Kessler lofted a pass into the right corner of the end zone, where Torin Harris had solid coverage on Blackwell, only to see Blackwell simply leap up and get the ball for the score.
As a side note, Blackwell’s high school coach, Bruce Rollinson from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, was standing on the sidelines near the play and had a big smile on his face for his former star. Kessler ended the day completing five of nine passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
Wittek, who also played for Rollinson at Mater Dei, hit Agholor for a 15-yard score, but his best throw of the day came when he threw down the right sideline to George Farmer for a 47-yard gain. Wittek completed three of five passes for 84 yards and one touchdown, he also had one potential touchdown pass dropped by Blackwell.
On defense, the two most active players were J.R. Tavai and Josh Shaw.
Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)
Wittek stepped back into the rotation on Tuesday after missing three practices due to a sprained MCL, and while he showed some rust, USC coach Lane Kiffin is optimistic he’ll soon return to his old form, making this competition one to watch once again. Of the trio, Kessler continued to be the most consistent this week, with Browne showing promise at times.
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