USC Trojans: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick

With the Trojans in the midst of their summer training schedule, here’s a look at some of the top offseason storylines for a collection of players whom USC coach Steve Sarkisian will count on to produce at a high level this fall -- the wide receivers and tight ends.

Agholor’s turn in the spotlight

After waiting his turn behind both Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, junior Nelson Agholor looks primed to follow in their footsteps as the next great Trojans wideout. First showing promise as a freshman, when he gave brief glimpses of his ability as a dynamic playmaker, he took his game to another level last year, first as the No. 2 option to Lee, and then, when the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner was sidelined for a portion of the season, as the go-to receiver.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNelson Agholor showed in 2013 he can fill the sizable shoes of a No. 1 receiver at USC.
Finishing his sophomore campaign with 56 receptions for a team-high 918 yards and six touchdowns, he firmly established himself as one of the conference’s top pass-catchers, but what has those around USC particularly encouraged these days is the way he came out this past spring and flat-out dominated. Developing strong chemistry with quarterback Cody Kessler, he was arguably the MVP of the entire string of practices.

With the Trojans’ no-huddle attack figuring to allow the offense to potentially run more than 80 plays per game, it’s a safe bet that Agholor will receive plenty of chances to shine as the team’s primary receiving threat, and with what he has shown it’s safe to say that he’s ready to seize the increased opportunity and run with it.

Who else steps up at WR?

While the Trojans do have a budding star in Agholor to rely on, in order for the passing game to really take off, Kessler is going to need to find some solid complements at wide receiver as well. Fortunately for Sarkisian and Co., the team does appear to possess better depth at the position than it did last season.

Right now, sophomore Darreus Rogers looks like the frontrunner to land the role of the No. 2 receiver. A big body with sure hands, he showed well as a freshman, making 22 catches, and he continued to improve his skills in the spring. If his development keeps on its forward path through this summer, big things could be in store for him in 2014.

Fourth-year junior Victor Blackwell is a veteran who has flashed at times as well, and there’s certainly room for him to become a bigger factor in the fall.

This unit will also receive a huge boost with the return of two players who missed the entire 2013 season due to knee injuries – fourth-year junior George Farmer and second-year freshman Steven Mitchell.

Farmer, who arrived at USC as one of the most highly touted members of the Trojans’ signing class of 2011, looked sharp this past spring as he eased himself back into action, providing hope that this might be his year to emerge. Mitchell showed a ton of promise a year ago before he went down. Now back in the swing of things this summer, he has been going hard and making big plays with great frequency during volunteer workouts.

George Katrib -- who earned a spot atop the depth chart in the spring -- Robby Kolanz , Christian Tober and Aaron Minor are some walk-ons who will provide depth, and then there’s a slew of talented incoming freshmen.

Adoree' Jackson might be the most intriguing addition to watch. A phenomenal athlete who starred on both sides of the ball at Gardena (Calif.) Serra, he took reps at cornerback during the first volunteer session that he participated in this past Monday, but Sarkisian has said that he will likely get a look on offense as well in the fall. In either case, he has the look of an instant impact performer wherever he lines up.

John “JuJu” Smith, Ajene Harris and Rahshead Johnson are other new arrivals who might be able to contribute early. Smith and Harris have stood out in the early goings this summer at wideout. Johnson, meanwhile, has been spending his time at corner.

Tight ends poised to flourish

With the success that 2013 John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins enjoyed in Sarkisian’s offense at Washington, there’s certainly reason to believe that the tight ends will take on a larger role in the passing game this year at USC than they did under the previous regime. Providing evidence of that, there did seem to be more passes headed their way this past spring. Although low on numbers, it’s a group marked by talent.

Xavier Grimble opted to take his talents to the NFL early, leaving fifth-year senior Randall Telfer as the unquestioned leader of the unit. With 22 starts and 44 career catches to his credit, he’s a dependable all-around option, but he missed the entire spring due to injury, and he hasn’t been spotted taking part in the team’s volunteer workouts so far this summer, so he’ll have some catching up to do in the new system whenever he does return.

Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick already got his feet wet in the offense this past spring, making quite an impression as he took the bulk of the first-team reps. Catching virtually everything thrown in his direction, he quickly made a name for himself as a possible breakout candidate for the season ahead.

Without a ton of depth, incoming freshman Bryce Dixon should get a chance to make his mark early. Standing 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he’s an outstanding receiving threat who hauled in 63 passes during his senior year at Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure.

Walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Connor Spears and Teddy Baker are others who could see time in the rotation. Willson, in particular, enjoyed a solid spring.

Ten spring risers at USC

April, 25, 2014
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With a new coaching staff in place at USC, spring practice represented a time of opportunity more than ever for lesser-known members of the team looking to make a move up the depth chart. With that said, here are 10 players who seized that chance over the course of the 15 workouts, showing that they just might be ready to make a significant impact for the Trojans in the fall.

[+] EnlargeJabari Ruffin
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsJabari Ruffin (40) was a force all spring, moving ahead of Quinton Powell at SAM linebacker.
1. TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-foot-4, 255 pounds, Jr.)
With Randall Telfer sidelined for this spring because of injury, Cope-Fitzpatrick got the call with the first unit and shined in Steve Sarkisian’s tight end-friendly offense. Showcasing sure hands to go along with the ideal size that you want at the position, he caught virtually everything thrown in his direction, providing more than enough evidence to suggest that he’s primed for a breakout season.

2. OLB Scott Starr (6-2, 220, RS So.)
After battling a neck injury and being buried on the depth chart during his first two years on campus, a now-healthy Starr materialized as a perfect fit at rush end in Justin Wilcox’s new 3-4 multiple front defense. With a nonstop motor and outstanding pass-rush skills, he capped his stellar spring in the Coliseum by making a game-high six stops, including three tackles for loss and one sack.

3. OL Zach Banner (6-9, 345, RS So.)
Missing the majority of the 2013 season after undergoing surgery on both hips, Banner’s emergence was one of the big surprises. Moving into the starting lineup at right tackle during the third week of workouts, Banner played the best that he has in a Trojans uniform -- a particularly impressive feat when you consider the fact he said he wasn’t even quite back to 100 percent yet. With the promise that he showed, it certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see him remain with the first group in the fall.

4. OLB Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 225, RS So.)
Like Starr, Ruffin benefited from the switch to the new defensive system in a big way. Rangy, fast and extremely aggressive at the point of attack, he’s tailor-made for the SAM linebacker position in Wilcox’s scheme. Beginning camp with the No. 2 unit, he eventually moved ahead of Quinton Powell -- another rising player -- and ran exclusively with the first-team defense during the last two weeks of spring drills.

5. CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, RS Fr.)
After spending his first season at USC redshirting, a more physically developed Hawkins came into camp showcasing an improved skill set, jumping in with the No. 1 defensive group opposite Kevon Seymour. His development is crucial for a unit that struggled in coverage at times in 2013, and even with the expected return of Josh Shaw from injury in the fall, USC will need all of the capable contributors it can come up with as the unit squares off against all of those uptempo, spread-it-out Pac-12 offenses.

6. OLB Quinton Powell (6-2, 220, So.)
The fact Powell was supplanted in the starting lineup during the later stages of spring ball really speaks more about the exceptional camp that Ruffin had than anything that Powell did wrong. On the contrary, the long and athletic former Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland star continued to stand out as one of the team’s most promising young talents. A force both in coverage and up at the line of scrimmage, the competition between Powell and Ruffin is sure to be one of the most entertaining position battles of fall camp.

7. DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, RS Jr.)
Forced to spend last fall on the scout team as he sat out the season after transferring from Texas Tech, where he compiled 13 starts in 2012, Simmons hit the ground running this spring from Day 1. Surprisingly mobile for a player possessing his size, expect him to make an instant impact up front for the Trojans as a member of what should be an extremely formidable defensive line group.

8. DL Claude Pelon (6-5, 285, RS Jr.)
Transferring to USC from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College in January, Pelon struggled at times early in camp as he adjusted to the lightning-fast tempo of practice, but once he got into shape he really asserted himself as someone to keep an eye on. In fact, perhaps no player improved more during the 15 practices than he did. A powerfully built athlete, he amassed three tackles for loss, including two sacks, in the spring game, and he’s only going to get better.

9. OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, RS Fr.)
Taking advantage of Aundrey Walker’s absence because of injury, Rodgers stepped in at right guard with the starting unit and remained there throughout spring ball. Strong and stout with a nasty demeanor when he’s on the field, he performed well enough to show that if Walker doesn’t return to form after having been away so long, Rodgers is a steady option who can certainly get the job done.

10. OL Toa Lobendahn (6-3, 290, Fr.)
An early enrollee, Lobendahn neither looked nor played like a player just a few months removed from high school. Lining up as the No. 2 center initially, he moved over to left guard, where he ran with the No. 1 unit throughout the last four weeks of drills. A versatile lineman with strong fundamentals, what was most impressive was the way he was able to hold his own physically against the more veteran players. Things will get a whole lot more interesting in the fall when USC adds injured guards Walker and Jordan Simmons back into the equation, as well as a host of freshmen, but Lobendahn got a jump on the competition by making a big statement with his play this spring.

The best of spring football at USC 

April, 23, 2014
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Here’s our look back at the Trojans’ progress during spring.

MVP

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWill Nelson Agholor become the latest standout receiver at USC?
Garry Paskwietz: Nelson Agholor
Johnny Curren: Agholor
Greg Katz: Agholor, Hayes Pullard

Curren: From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

Biggest surprise

GP: Zach Banner
JC: Scott Starr
GK: Banner

Katz: It has to be redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Zach Banner, who came out of nowhere -- thanks to the wonders of hip surgery -- to claim the starting position. He probably surprised not only his teammates with his newfound agility but himself as well. Still a work in progress, he is not only turning into a grizzly bear on roller skates but potentially a future All-Pac-12 selection. When Banner is able to stay at pad level, it’s like a tsunami of human girth stream rolling a mismatched opponent.

Spring games roundup

April, 21, 2014
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Here's a quick look at some of the highlights of the four spring games this past weekend.

Arizona State

Sophomore linebacker Viliami Moeakiola stopped running back Jarek Hilgers on fourth-and-short on the final play as the Maroon team held off the Gold squad 29-23 in front of 8,456 fans at Sun Devil Stadium.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 7 of 22 passes with a touchdown for the Maroon team. Gold quarterback Mike Bercovici went 11-of-24 with three touchdowns and an interception.

“I like the format that we did because it created more competition,” said ASU coach Todd Graham. “The gold team was really down, but came back and fought back, got a chance to win. Maroon held on with a fourth down, goal-line stand. D.J. [Foster] was frustrated with me—he really wanted to play more. I thought he did some good things when he was in there. Loved the big shot to Jaelen [Strong] from Taylor Kelly. I thought Kelly really looked good today. He really managed the offense and was very much in command of things. Both offensive lines divided up evenly on each team — all those guys did some good things."

The complete stats are available here.

USC

In front of 17,500 fans at the L.A. Coliseum, kicker Andre Heidari made four field goals. But the offense failed to get into the end zone and the defense came out on top 16-15.

Newly re-anointed starting quarterback Cody Kessler completed 5 of 10 passes for 86 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Max Browne went 6-of-17 for 76 yards with no scores or picks and Jalen Greene was 4-of-11 for 61 yards – also without a touchdown nor an interception. Notes Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times:
Before getting too alarmed, it is worth noting that dating to the Pete Carroll era, USC's spring finale has not served as a reliable indicator of fall performance.

Rather, it's annually an exercise in avoiding major injury while looking ahead to summer.

So a true evaluation of [Steve] Sarkisian's new fast-paced, no-huddle scheme cannot begin until USC plays its Aug. 30 opener against Fresno State at the Coliseum.

Walk-on tailback James Toland IV was the top rusher with 36 yards on eight carries and tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick caught three passes for 56 yards. Scott Starr had a game-high six tackles, with three for a loss.

"We had a couple big pass plays, but the defense played really well and tackled well,” Sarkisian said. "And we got out of the game with no serious injuries."

Utah

Despite 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns from transfer Devontae Booker, the Red team took down the White squad 28-27 in front of 12,056 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Quarterback Travis Wilson, still shackled by noncontact restrictions, completed 7 of 12 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in five drives.

Dominique Hatfield (four catches, 93 yards) and Westlee Tonga hauled in touchdown receptions for the White team. Troy McCormick rushed eight times for 34 yards with a touchdown to lead the Red squad.

"We've been high on Devontae Booker ever since he got here," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He didn't get here more than a week or two before the start of spring ball, so he was fighting his lack of conditioning all spring. But as soon as he gets himself in great shape, I think he'll be a very good running back in this conference. All of the running backs ran hard today. A strong running game is where everything begins, even if you are a spread team."

Sal Velasquez and Filipo Mokofisi each picked off Brandon Cox, who threw the only interceptions of the game. Adam Schulz was 9-of-13 for 110 yards with a touchdown and Conner Manning was 9-of-12 for 86 yards and a score.

The complete stats are available here.

Washington

Though Washington didn’t keep official stats for its drizzly spring game, quarterback Jeff Lindquist threw four touchdowns in red zone and situational drills and, per Adam Jude of the Seattle Times, was unofficially 11-of-15 for 134 yards.

Troy Williams, who has been splitting reps all spring with Lindquist while the team awaits the status of Cyler Miles, was 11-of-18 for 38 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Deontae Cooper, Lavon Coleman and Ralph Kinne were the only backs who participated. Cooper carried nine times for 68 yards, Colmean rushed 18 times for 99 yards and a touchdown and Kinne had seven carries for 38 yards.

Head coach Chris Petersen told Gohuskies.com that picking a quarterback to replace Keith Price could go all the way up until the season opener – if not longer.

“Absolutely, that’s possible. Yeah, we could go to Game 9, if it hasn’t been decided,” Petersen said. “We’ll take this one day at a time. One day, one game. I know it sounds cliché, but it really will be. … I mean, it’s all nice to have a starting quarterback, but that guy graduated in December. And so, we are at square one. Until one guy establishes himself, we don’t have a guy.”
After a break in action, USC returns to Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday to pick up where it left off after a promising first week of spring drills under Steve Sarkisian.

Much was revealed during those initial three workouts, and here are three key things to keep an eye on as the Trojans go through the remaining practice schedule in March and April.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has adjusted well to USC's uptempo offense this spring.
The continued development of the players in the new systems

Week 1 was all about an uptempo pace as the players got their feet wet in new offensive and defensive schemes at a frenetic pace. To their credit, they appeared to adapt to it all in lightning-quick fashion.

And so, the big question now is just how much further can they come over the course of the next four weeks?

On offense, the progression of the passing game should be particularly interesting to watch. Both Cody Kessler and Max Browne performed solidly in Sarkisian’s hurry-up, shotgun-based offense. As they continue to grow at ease in the new system and develop more chemistry with their receivers, there’s reason to believe the aerial attack has the potential to really take off.

On the other side of the ball, Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense has been a hit so far, due in large part to some outstanding play in the trenches. The front seven shined throughout the first week, even with Leonard Williams standing on the sideline due to injury. With unique size on the interior and hulking contributors like Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon combined with exciting athletes on the outside, this unit should get better and better this spring.

In the secondary, even with Josh Shaw out of action, Keith Heyward’s group has been making some impressive plays in coverage -- something they struggled to do under the prior regime. Will that trend continue? We’ll soon find out.

Competition, competition, competition

When Sarkisian took the reins in early December, one thing he stressed was that virtually every position would be up for grabs. He wanted to create an atmosphere of competition. And with one week of practice in the books, it’s safe to say that is precisely what's happened.

A number of tightly contested position battles have taken shape, none garnering more attention than the one at quarterback between Browne, Kessler and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene. With some added bulk to his frame and an increased level of confidence, Browne really opened eyes with his play in Week 1, but that doesn’t mean Kessler backed down an inch. A vocal leader of the team, Kessler did a great job of directing the offense down the field with frequent success. He had the poise and command you’d expect from a veteran with 14 starts under his belt. Greene has displayed flashes at times, although he’s taken noticeably fewer snaps than his counterparts, both of whom appear to have a sizeable lead on him in this race.

On defense, the competitions for the two spots on the edge of the line have been the highlight so far. Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin are duking it out at SAM linebacker, with Scott Starr and J.R. Tavai battling at rush end. In Week 1, it was Powell and Starr running exclusively with the No. 1 unit, but, really, all four contenders have stood out at times.

Some previously hidden players have also begun to emerge as they’ve received somewhat of a golden opportunity to show what they can do in the new schemes. Powell and Starr are two such examples, as are tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, guard Khaliel Rodgers, tackle Nathan Guertler, cornerback Chris Hawkins and defensive end Simmons.

How physical will Sarkisian allow it to get?

With a new staff in place and a depleted roster (NCAA sanctions) made even more so because of a number of injuries, Sarkisian indicated when he took over at USC that he might not push the envelope too much when it came to live hitting this spring. That was certainly the case in the first week. But as the team progresses through the schedule this month and next, will we see the pads popping with greater frequency at any point?

There are certainly some added benefits that could come with more physical workouts, but there are drawbacks as well. Finding the perfect combination isn’t as easy as it might sound. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

Stay away from full-contact drills completely and you risk fielding a defense that could get pushed around and has tackling issues. That was the case in 2012.

But USC still lacks depth, and if you allow more hitting, you also run the risk of more players getting injured. That happened in 2013.

It’s a decision that could ultimately play a major role in shaping the identity of the team down the line, so it will be interesting to see which way Sarkisian goes here.
With spring practice set to start back up again for USC next week, here’s a look at 10 players who entered the March and April workouts as somewhat hidden commodities but who showed in the first week of spring practice that they just might have the potential to take on a larger role for the Trojans in 2014.

TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-foot-4, 255 pounds, junior): With Xavier Grimble off to the NFL draft and Randall Telfer currently sidelined by injury, Cope-Fitzpatrick is the lone active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans this spring, and he’s made the most of what has been a golden opportunity to demonstrate what he’s capable of doing in USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new up-tempo, tight end-friendly offense. Cope-Fitzpatrick displayed sure hands and a high level of athleticism in the first week, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction.

OLB Quinton Powell (6-2, 220, sophomore): Powell was one of the more exciting practice players to watch last fall as a reserve Will linebacker, and now that he’s made the move back outside -- where he played in high school -- to Sam linebacker, he looks to have found the perfect spot to showcase his talents. Long, athletic and extremely active, he was equally as strong coming off the edge as he was in pass coverage while running with the No. 1 defensive group.

[+] EnlargeNathan Guertler
AP Photo / Chris BernacchiFormer walk-on Nathan Guertler earned a scholarship and is in the mix on the offensive line.
Rush end/OLB Scott Starr (6-2, 220, redshirt sophomore): Hampered by injuries early in his career, Starr is now healthy and it’s made a world of difference. Lining up with the starting group at rush end in Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense, he’s obviously already gained a level of confidence from the new coaching staff with his ability as a pass rusher and as a disruptive force, in general, near the line of scrimmage.

CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, redshirt freshman): There’s little denial the Trojans need to shore up the cornerback spots heading into the 2014 season, and with Josh Shaw sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot, Hawkins got plenty of work during the first three workouts of spring. He was solid, for the most part. After redshirting as a freshman last fall, he looks to be playing with a greater level of confidence than he did just a few months ago. His interception of a Cody Kessler pass on the first day of practice was one of the highlights of the week.

DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, redshirt junior): Forced to sit out the 2013 season after transferring to USC from Texas Tech, Simmons has stepped into the starting lineup this spring at defensive end and looks primed to make an instant impact as part of what should be an outstanding defensive line. Possessing a huge frame to go along with a strong motor, he already has the veteran experience that comes with having started 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012.

OL Nathan Guertler (6-5, 280, redshirt senior): Originally arriving at USC as a walk-on in 2010, Guertler was recently awarded a scholarship by the new coaching staff, and it’s safe to say it’s an honor he more than deserves. A tireless worker who made the switch to tight end last season when the team had low numbers at the position, he’s now getting an extensive look with the first team at right tackle. And while it certainly isn’t a foregone conclusion that he’ll remain there in the fall, he’s shown enough to ensure that he’s worthy of being in the discussion.

OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, redshirt freshman): Figured by many to be a prime contender for the open center spot going into the spring, Rodgers instead ran with the 1s at right guard and looked to be at home. As an aggressive blocker who possesses a mean streak on the field, he would appear to be a perfect fit as part of an offensive line unit that, under Tim Drevno, has placed an emphasis on being physical. Figuring to face plenty of additional competition in the fall in the form of freshmen Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, the experience Rodgers is gaining now could give him a leg up heading into fall camp.

DL Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 300, redshirt freshman): Fairly raw when he first arrived on campus a little more than a year ago, Bigelow looks to have made strides in terms of where he is physically, as well as mentally, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him factor heavily into the defensive line rotation in 2014. With players such as Leonard Williams and Greg Townsend Jr. sidelined, Bigelow worked with the first team at one of the interior defensive end spots for a majority of the first week of practice.

S Gerald Bowman (5-11, 195, redshirt senior): Back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss most of the 2013 season, Bowman has re-emerged this spring as one of only three available scholarship safeties. With the ability to play both safety spots, he served an important role throughout the first three practices as a backup and a key contributor in nickel situations.

OL Giovanni Di Poalo (6-4, 275, redshirt senior): For Di Poalo, 2014 marks his last shot to make a real impact for the Trojans, and to his credit it looks like he’s doing everything he can to try to make that happen. Taking advantage of the fresh start he’s gained with a new staff in place, in addition to the fact that USC simply doesn’t have a lot of healthy bodies ready to go along the offensive line right now, he took reps exclusively with the No. 1 unit at left guard last week. Things will get a whole lot more interesting in fall camp when those highly touted freshmen arrive, but Di Poalo appears to be making a statement that he won’t back down easily.
From coast to coast, at every FBS program across the country, spring football represents a time when those lesser-known performers who have waited in the wings receive the chance to emerge from the shadows.

And at USC, where a new coaching staff with fresh ideas and philosophies has created an atmosphere where every team member is starting out with a clean slate, perhaps no under-the-radar player has made a more pronounced statement with his play this spring -- at least through the first three workouts -- than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.

Showcasing sure hands and impressive athleticism to go along with a 6-foot-4 and 245-pound frame, Cope-Fitzpatrick -- who made just three receptions in his initial two seasons on campus -- seemed to reel in almost everything thrown in his direction during the first week of drills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Cope-Fitzpatrick
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is excited about getting opportunities in the new USC offense.
“I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and having a good spring,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian following a particularly strong showing by Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday. “He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays, and he’s doing it.”

That much is certain. With Xavier Grimble and his 69 career catches now off to the NFL draft and the Trojans’ other talented 2013 co-starter at tight end, Randall Telfer, still being held out of action because of injury, Sarkisian has had no other choice but to rely on Cope-Fitzpatrick, and to the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout's credit, he’s answered the call.

“I feel a lot more focused than before,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said after practice Saturday. “Now that I’m going to be a junior, an upperclassman, I feel like I have the chance to position myself into a starting role. So, I’m really trying to push myself to fill that role and to fill the need of the team, and to just kind of put my head down and work.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick has also seen his responsibilities skyrocket as a direct result of the Trojans’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense, which places an emphasis on making use of the tight end as weapon in the passing game -- something Sarkisian did with great success at Washington with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 2013 John Mackey Award winner.

For Cope-Fitzpatrick, the switch from former coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, which didn’t utilize the tight end as a receiving threat on a consistent basis, to Sarkisian’s offense was welcomed, to say the least.

In fact, the only negative for Cope-Fitzpatrick so far is that Grimble -- who, along with Telfer, played an important role as a mentor throughout the last two years -- isn’t around to reap the rewards.

“I’m upset my big brother, Xavier, isn’t back,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I really wish that he came back so all three of us could enjoy the fruits of this new system. It’s very tight end-friendly. I’m excited, and I think the tight ends are going to do really big things.”

Come fall camp, the Trojans will also insert highly touted Class of 2014 signee Bryce Dixon into the mix, adding another exciting piece to a group that, in addition to Cope-Fitzpatrick and Telfer, will also feature walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Teddy Baker and Connor Spears.

New tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo has already made a positive impression on Cope-Fitzpatrick. A former Huskies quarterback who also played for the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets before embarking on his coaching career, Tuiasosopo commands a special level of respect. Cope-Fitzpatrick was already very familiar with Tuiasosopo before he landed at USC as an assistant.

“He’s great. I definitely see a lot of Raider in him, and being a Raiders fan, I’ve always liked that attitude growing up,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “He’s just a positive guy, and he pushes me and really wants me to succeed. It’s great to have that kind of support. I’m really learning a lot from him, especially when it comes to the complexities of the offense. He has a quarterback’s mind, so he’s really helping me with reading defenses.”

With the promise that Cope-Fitzpatrick has shown this month, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to his future. But with only three practice sessions in the books this spring, he’s not about to get ahead of himself, and he freely admits that he still has much to learn and a whole lot more to prove as he makes a bid to take on an expanded role in the USC offense in 2014.

“I just want to continue to develop,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “One thing that I really want to work on is just getting the offense down, just really being on top of stuff so I can play that much faster. And then once I learn the offense, I can start critiquing the little things. But right now, it’s just about taking baby steps.”

Offense shines on Day 2

March, 13, 2014
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After the defense stood out in the team’s first practice session under Steve Sarkisian on Tuesday, the new USC head coach said the offense stole the show on Day 2 of the Trojans’ spring practice.

“I thought the offense created some explosive plays in the second practice which weren’t there in the first practice,” Sarkisian said. “And so, like I’m used to on this practice field, one side of the ball can get the better of the other on one day, and then you come back the next practice and the other side can get the better of them. I thought the defense had a great Tuesday [and] I thought the offense came out and created some explosive plays today. It was kind of their turn.”

In particular, it was the play of quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Browne -- who are entrenched in a position battle -- that really caught the eye of Sarkisian. Directing the team’s brand new uptempo, shotgun-based offense, both signal callers split the bulk of snaps during the 7-on-7 and team periods, with each contender completing deep passes downfield on a number of occasions.

“I thought they played well today,” Sarkisian said. “I think that they’re starting to recognize the speed coming out of Tuesday’s practice of how fast things go, and how quickly they have to recognize fronts and coverages, and making those quick decisions -- similar to how a point guard would have to make quick decisions on a basketball court. And I thought both Cody and Max were much better at that today.”

And even though the third member of the quarterback competition, early entry freshman Jalen Greene, didn’t see as much action as his counterparts, he came up with a big play of his own when he completed a 35-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Darreus Rogers, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Sarkisian.

“[He took] a little less reps, but to Jalen’s credit he goes in and throws a touchdown pass,” Sarkisian said. “He’ll get plenty of reps. We’ve got 13 more [practices] to go, so he’ll get his time. We just felt like it was important to get Cody and Max some extended reps in today’s practice.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick makes a big impression

No player benefitted more from the performance of the quarterbacks than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. With Randall Telfer sidelined due to injury, the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout is currently the only active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans. To his credit, he’s taken advantage of the increased opportunity this spring, particularly on Thursday.

Showcasing soft hands, Cope-Fitzpatrick hauled in a number of passes all over the field, and he was especially in sync with Kessler. With Sarkisian having shown at Washington that he isn’t afraid to use the tight end as a major weapon in his offense, he was encouraged by what he saw from Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday.

“In this system we love to utilize the tight end, and a lot of time multiple tight ends,” Sarkisian said. “I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and have a good spring. I thought he was really attentive and locked in on Tuesday, and then he got opportunities today to make plays down the field, and he made them. I think that’s what he’s capable of. He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays and he’s doing it.”

Notes and quotes

• Following practice defensive back Josh Shaw, who is still sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and is wearing a boot, said that he will line up at cornerback in 2014.

J.R. Tavai saw extensive time with the first-team defense at defensive end on Thursday, where Kenny Bigelow lined up for the majority of Tuesday’s practice. Tavai had run primarily with the second unit on the outside at rush end on Tuesday.

• Among those in attendance were Class of 2014 signees Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama, Chris Brown and Ajene Harris, Class of 2015 defensive lineman Rasheem Green and USC and NFL greats Keyshawn Johnson and Ronnie Lott.

• The next practice is on Saturday, but the team will be in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets, and it will not be in a scrimmage setting as some might have assumed. In fact, Sarkisian said that he isn’t sure that the team will hold any scrimmages in the traditional sense this spring.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to come out and have a two-hour scrimmage. I don’t know if we benefit from that,” he said. “But there will be portions of our practice that will be live, that will be scrimmage oriented, and I think that will allow us to tackle, it will allow us to cut block, it will allow us to learn from those things, but not be so overly fatigued to where guys can start getting injured.”

Spring position breakdowns: TE

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Terrence Miller was listed on the team's depth chart as a tight end, but he wasn't a traditional tight end. After catching 40 passes for 467 yards in 2013, he's out of eligibility. Former quarterback Josh Kern backed up Miller and is one of four tight ends listed on the roster.

Arizona State: Chris Coyle (29 catches, 423 yards, 4 TD) is a big loss for the Sun Devils and his primary backup, Darwin Rogers, also is out of eligibility. De'Marieya Nelson and Marcus Washington are the most experienced of the four tight ends on the roster, which will grow by one with the addition of recent signee Brendan Landman. Landman is expected to redshirt after playing left tackle during his senior year in high school.

California: There is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin is atop the depth chart after catching nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin played minimally as a freshman, but his role is set to increase. Three other tight ends are on the roster, including Connor Center, who did not play football in high school.

[+] EnlargePharaoh Brown
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOregon's Pharoah Brown made 10 catches, two for touchdowns, in 2013.
Oregon: The Ducks have a trio of players who gained significant experience in 2013 in Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Brown started five games, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State. Koa Ka'ai and Davaysia Hagger will provide depth, but they don't appear on track to make much of an impact on the depth chart.

Oregon State: With Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith both returning, the Beavers arguably have the best tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Kellen Clute (19 catches, 159 yards) also contributed to the passing game and Tyler Perry, who will be a fifth-year senior, is an important run-blocker.

Stanford: A one-time strength of the Cardinal, tight ends weren't a significant factor in Stanford's offense in 2013, but the staff is hopeful that an influx of new players will change that. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he'll compete for playing time immediately. Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper -- all well-regarded tight end recruits -- are coming off redshirts and will compete with Charlie Hopkins, who started three games last season.

UCLA: There is no traditional tight end at UCLA, but Y receiver Thomas Duarte, who was recruited as a tight end, is coming off an exceptional freshman season. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Orange County native appeared in all 13 games and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

USC: Losing Xavier Grimble early to the NFL is a blow and just two other scholarship tight ends remain from last season: Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. One of the nation's top tight ends, Bryce Dixon, signed with USC, but he wasn't among the group of four early enrollees.

Utah: The Utes were the only school in the country to send two tight ends -- Jake Murphy and Anthony Denham -- to the NFL combine, though Utah listed Denham at receiver. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup on the final depth chart, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins' departure for the NFL was expected, and how the Huskies replace him will be an interesting process. Clearly, there's not a one-man solution for what they'll lose with Seferian-Jenkins, but the combination that the returning players provide is a nice mix of different talents. Michael Hartvigson and Josh Perkins have the most experience at tight end, but they should receive a push from Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu. Daniels, a highly-regarded receiver recruit who switched to tight end, was a special-teams standout in 2013 as a freshman, while Ajamu redshirted.

Washington State: Washington State didn't list any tight ends on the roster last season, but early enrollee Nick Begg will start his career listed there. The long-term plan for Begg is likely elsewhere.

Previous positions
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line

Roundtable: USC spring storylines

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
2:15
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WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

What storyline will you be most interested to follow in spring ball?

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonIt should be interesting to see how the USC defense evolves this spring with Justin Wilcox calling the shots.
Garry Paskwietz: I’ll be watching to see how the defense begins to take shape under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. One of the things that worked so well for the Trojans last season was the way the USC defensive personnel fit so smoothly within the 5-2 scheme utilized by former coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Wilcox says he wants to get a look at the USC players on the field to see how their skills fit before he commits to a particular scheme, so it could be a very fluid situation in spring. How does the rotation look along the line, especially with the need to replace George Uko? Who steps up to fill the edge-rush spots at outside linebacker? Will Su’a Cravens be used in much the same way Shaq Thompson was at Washington? These and many other questions will begin to get answered when the Trojans hit the field next month.

Johnny Curren: I’m most interested to see how the new up-tempo offense that USC coach Steve Sarkisian plans to install comes along, and how the current Trojans players adapt to playing in it. Sarkisian has stated before that although fast-paced, it will still essentially be a pro-style, run-first offense, but there are still bound to be several significant differences from USC offenses of the past, and there are plenty of questions heading into the spring that won’t begin to be answered until the team hits the practice field. Will one of the quarterbacks -- Cody Kessler, Max Browne or Jalen Greene -- prove to be particularly adept at directing the new attack? Will the quarterbacks be asked to run more? Will more of an emphasis be placed on throwing to the tight end, as Sarkisian did at Washington, and will Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick thrive in the potentially expanded role? Will we see more wideouts involved? Will the fullback really be utilized? Most importantly, though, will it all result in an offense that is more explosive, and in the end, more productive? In less than a month we’ll start to find out.

Greg Katz: The O-line gets top billing here, especially the center position, which is key with the early departure of All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin to the NFL draft. The candidates or position changes as it pertains to center could be fascinating because it could lead to a domino effect. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, who should be a prime candidate for either center or guard. Another sidebar to the offensive line, of course, is the arrival of new coach Tim Drevno from the San Francisco 49ers. Watching his readjustment to college players and what’s available to him should be worth watching at spring practice.

As for an overall view, with a new system and terminology, the logical advantage for returners such as left tackle Chad Wheeler and right tackle Max Tuerk is starting experience. Tuerk, however, is one to keep an eye on to see if he stays at right tackle and is not moved to center. Rehabilitation for guards Jordan Simmons and Aundrey Walker make spring progress tough, but it should make for interesting competition to see how the available bodies fit into Sark’s “puzzle pieces.” What you see in the spring might not be the offensive line you see in the first game against Fresno State.

The Pac-12 has 26 of the 98 early entrants in the NFL draft. That’s impressive. Some players are locks to get drafted. Others might have jumped the gun a bit and find themselves on practice squads or brushing up on their Canadian. We’ll see.

What we’re more concerned about here is who is going to replace them. Some answers are clearer than others. Some teams might have to alter their schemes just to account for a departed player.

Here’s a look at the possible replacement players in the Pac-12 South. We’ll look at the North later this morning.

Leaving: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona.

The replacement: Jared Baker should be in the mix, though an injury will keep him out of spring ball. He’s expected to return in time for fall camp. Pierre Cormier and Zach Green will also get looks. Speaking with folks at Arizona, the word right now is that it’s wide open. One player could emerge, or it could end up being a by-committee approach. Nothing is off the table at this point.

Leaving: Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State

The replacement: There really isn’t anyone who has Bradford’s skill set in the program yet, so the position is wide open. Viliami Latu has potential. So does Chans Cox, who was hurt a lot last season. They are also excited about incoming freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson. He might not be ready to jump in immediately, but he could be the Devil backer by 2015.

[+] EnlargeRichardson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsColorado will have a hard time replacing the explosive plays that Paul Richardson provided.
Leaving: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado

The replacement: It was probably going to be Jeff Thomas before he transferred. Now it’s probably going to be a rotation of D.D. Goodson, Devin Ross, or redshirt freshmen Bryce Bobo or Elijah Dunston. Nelson Spruce has been solid, but he’s not the breakaway threat Richardson was. This will be a key spring battle to watch.

Leaving: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA

The replacement: Simon Goines should be back after starting six games at left tackle before an injury forced him out. Scott Quessenberry stepped in and played five games at left guard, which is where he’ll likely be next season with Goines back at tackle.

Leaving: Dion Bailey, LB, USC

The replacement: Leon McQuay III saw some playing time and is very highly regarded by the coaching staff. His contributions last season were mostly on special teams, but he’ll take on a larger role with Bailey’s departure.

Leaving: Marqise Lee, WR, USC

The replacement: Remember George Farmer? He’s still around and could be in for a big season if healthy. Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell both are promising, but both have missed time with injury. You never truly replace a Biletnikoff winner, but playing opposite a surging Nelson Agholor could help boost the production of whoever gets in the regular rotation.

Leaving: George Uko, DT, USC

The replacement: Transfer Delvon Simmons is coming off a redshirt season, as is freshman Kenny Bigelow. Both should get some serious looks, as this will be one of the hot position battles this spring. Someone will ultimately win the job, but expect a rotation with both next season.

Leaving: Marcus Martin, C, USC

The replacement: Lots of ifs here. It could be Max Tuerk moving over from guard, but he’ll also be in the mix for right tackle to replace Kevin Graf. Khaliel Rodgers redshirted and is an option at guard or center. Giovanni Di Poalo could also get a look.

Leaving: Xavier Grimble, TE, USC

The replacement: Grimble and Randall Telfer were basically co-starters, so all this probably means is Telfer’s workload increases as he becomes the clear No. 1. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is the only other scholarship tight end on the roster.

Leaving: Jake Murphy, TE, Utah

The replacement: Westlee Tonga seems like the logical fit. He has been around for a few years and has some experience, but was injured most of last year. He’ll get another opportunity to be the lead tight end in the newest installment of Utah’s offense.

2013 review: USC offense 

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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With a new starting quarterback at the helm, a slew of injuries depleting an already thin depth chart and a highly publicized coaching carousel, the production of the USC offense was largely up and down in 2013 with the Trojans averaging a pedestrian 29.7 points per game, while converting just 35 percent on third-down plays.

Still, part of a USC squad that finished 10-4, this is a unit that made strides throughout the course of the season. It’s safe to say that it certainly had more than its share of shining moments.

Quarterback

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Grimble takes on bigger role

November, 28, 2013
11/28/13
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The 2013 season certainly hasn’t come without its challenges for Xavier Grimble.

Dinged up with ankle and shoulder injuries, it seemed like the tight end never got his chance to get going in USC's pass offense.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC tight end Xavier Grimble is hoping to finish the regular season strong this weekend against rival UCLA.
That changed this past weekend.

With a career-high six catches for 46 yards, the 6-foot-5 Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman product provided quarterback Cody Kessler with a big, steady receiving option to lean on in the Trojans' 47-29 victory over Colorado.

“It just felt good,” said Grimble, a fourth-year junior. “I always like to stay ready for whenever my opportunity comes, and it came. They called my number a few times, and I was able to make the plays.”

With USC tight ends averaging under two receptions per game as a unit heading into the contest, the production of Grimble, and Randall Telfer -- who caught a 10-yard touchdown pass -- was somewhat of a revelation.

According to Grimble, offensive coordinator Clay Helton has always wanted to utilize the tight ends more as receiving threats, but he simply couldn’t because the group has been wracked by injuries virtually all season long.

But with Grimble feeling the best he has in a while, in addition to the improved health of Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, there are reasons to believe that last weekend’s performance might just be a primer of things to come.

“It’s been a rough season for myself and the other tight ends,” said Grimble, who has amassed 21 receptions for 220 yards and one touchdown in 2013. “We’ve been injured a little bit, and it affected our place in the passing game. It’s not that Coach [Helton] doesn’t want to use us. We just haven’t been up to full speed. And now that we’re back and getting fully healthy, I definitely think there will be more balls coming our way.”

That's exactly what Grimble wants.

“I love catching passes and being physical with the defense,” Grimble said. “Just creating a different piece in the offense as a big target who can move well.”

Still, Grimble knows that as a tight end in USC's pro-style offense, he's just as valuable to the team for his blocking abilities, and it's a job that he's grown to enjoy over the course of time.

“As I got older, I kind of noticed that a pancake or finishing someone off on a block is almost just as good as catching a ball,” Grimble said. “I get a thrill out of it.”

Grimble hopes to follow up his strong performance last weekend with another one this Saturday when the Trojans face crosstown rival UCLA at home in the Coliseum. It’s a matchup that will pit him up against a pair of highly regarded outside linebackers for the Bruins.

“They’ve got some good players over there,” Grimble said. “They’ve got Anthony Barr, who’s probably a top-10 pick, and Myles Jack. They both play on the end so that’s going to be a big challenge for me, and I’m excited for it. I’m always ready to go up against whoever the top guys are. Those are the type of guys that I’m supposed to be going against.”

And with memories of the Trojans’ 38-28 loss to UCLA in 2012 still fresh in his mind, it’s a game, and a test, that can’t come soon enough.

“It’s what it’s all about,” Grimble said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

Guertler helping USC out at tight end 

November, 7, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- With the USC Trojans’ sudden dearth of tight ends due to injuries suffered in the Notre Dame game, it was out of desperation that junior walk-on offensive tackle Nathan Guertler was converted to tight end, and the results couldn’t be more satisfying.


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WeAreSC roundtable: Making changes

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
12:15
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WeAreSC staffers discuss bye-week topics, including the impact of a coaching change.

If you could change one thing on offense with Clay Helton calling plays, what would it be?

Garry Paskwietz: To develop a consistent identity. The players really liked what they saw from Helton during spring ball when he called plays in some scrimmages and it will be important to get that comfort level back. The USC offense has been up and down this year with play calling that ranged from what was seen against Washington State to solid efforts against Boston College and Arizona State.

Johnny Curren: Getting the tight ends more involved in the passing attack. Although low in numbers, the Trojans possess a very talented group of tight ends, headlined by Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, yet they’ve been totally underutilized throughout the past two seasons. This year, in fact, the group has a total of just 12 grabs. By getting this unit more involved in the offensive attack, it would add a whole new element to the passing game, and perhaps make life a whole lot easier for Cody Kessler.

Greg Katz: If I could change one thing on offense with Helton calling plays, it would be to run the ball even more and then use play-action passes off the running game, which I believe is going to happen.


[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesNelson Agholor will probably see more passes come his way as the Trojans move forward.
Coaching changes usually bring about a player who rises with the new coach. Who do you think that player is likely to be?

Garry Paskwietz: The tight end spot, with Grimble and Telfer. USC fans have sat back for the last two years and wondered why these two terrific athletes were not utilized more as part of the offense. That should change now.

Johnny Curren: Nelson Agholor. Agholor has just 11 receptions through five games, and he really hasn’t even been thrown to with much frequency this season. With Marqise Lee sidelined at the moment, he will likely take on a bigger role regardless, but with Orgeron’s statement on Monday that he wants to spread the ball around more, Agholor could really take off in the long run. As he showed in the spring, he’s a dangerous big-play threat, and he’s just waiting for the chance to break out.

Greg Katz: I think that Agholor will now be incorporated into the offense even more by this coaching change, and I suspect we will see greater use of tight ends Grimble and Telfer.


Who has been your MVP through five games?

Garry Paskwietz: I’m going to go with Tre Madden. He has been a consistent presence while averaging more than 100 yards per game, something the offense hasn’t had in a while. It becomes all the more impressive when you realize Tre is coming off knee surgery and, by the way, he had never carried the ball in a college game before this year.

Johnny Curren: Madden. While the production of the offense, as a whole, has been up and down, Madden has performed at a consistently high level throughout the season. Leading the team with 583 yards on the ground, he ranks No. 4 in the conference with a rushing average of 116.6 yards per game, and he gives USC the program’s first real workhorse at tailback in quite a while.

Greg Katz: My MVP through five games would be defensive end Devon Kennard, who has really found a home in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment. Devon has been a real force there each and every game, and you have to admire his attitude and consistency. Offensively, I would have to go with Madden, who seems to be getting better and better each week. It won’t shock me to see him now carry the ball 20 times a game with backup carries by Justin Davis.

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