USC Trojans: Josh Shaw
It has been well-chronicled how dysfunctional the Trojans defense was last year. The number of points in games surrendered to the likes of Oregon (62), Arizona (39), UCLA (38), and even Syracuse (29) was enough to even make an onion cry, let alone USC fans.
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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.
2012 record: 7-6
2012 conference record: 5-4
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6; special teams: 1
Top returners: WR Marqise Lee, TB Silas Redd, TE Xavier Grimble, TE Randall Telfer, OL Kevin Graf, DL Leonard Williams, OLB/DE Morgan Breslin, LB Hayes Pullard, LB Dion Bailey
Key losses: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, OL Khaled Holmes, DL Wes Horton, DB T.J. McDonald, DB Nickell Robey, RB Curtis McNeal, P Kyle Negrete
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Silas Redd* (905 yards, 9 touchdowns)
Passing: Matt Barkley (3,273 yards, 36 touchdowns)
Receiving: Marqise Lee* (1,721 yards, 14 touchdowns)
Tackles: T.J. McDonald (112)
Sacks: Morgan Breslin* (13)
Interceptions: Dion Bailey* (4)
1. Agholor is ready to go: USC has been fortunate to have a pair of dynamic receivers recently in Woods and Lee. With Woods taking his talents to Buffalo, the question of who will fill that second receiver spot was answered resoundingly in the spring with a terrific performance by Agholor. It’s not a complete surprise to see this happen, as Agholor had shown flashes as a true freshman, but it was a bit of a shock to see him at such a high level. With Lee sidelined for much of spring with a minor knee injury, Agholor stepped up and was the most consistent offensive performer of spring.
2. New defense gets positive reviews: The offseason arrival of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast also brought a new 5-2 scheme for the Trojans, and there was a lot of anticipation to see how things would fit. After 15 practices, the results were fairly solid, especially in the front seven. The defensive line looks strong in the middle -- led by Williams and George Uko -- while Breslin picked up where he left off last fall with 3.5 sacks in the spring game. Pullard looks set at one inside linebacker spot with much-improved Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao still fighting it out for the other open spot.
3. Early enrollees as good as advertised: The Trojans took advantage of the early enrollee signing period by bringing in seven freshmen to take part in the spring session. It was a star-studded group led by QB Max Browne and S Su'a Cravens. All seven had moments showing why they were so highly touted with the most impressive all-around performance coming from tailback Justin Davis, who had Lane Kiffin saying he could push for the starting job in the fall.
1. Quarterback battle: The most high-profile position battle didn’t get settled in spring, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes when there is no decision, it’s because nobody is playing well -- that’s not the case here. Cody Kessler and Max Wittek have both shown enough to take over the starting spot after being in the program for two full years. Kessler was steady and came away with the unofficial nod as the projected starter from most practice observers. Wittek missed some time with a knee injury but still showcased the strong arm that will keep this battle going into fall camp. Browne will likely redshirt this year behind those two, but his talent is obvious.
2. Filling the cornerback spots: The need to get things settled at cornerback is the biggest concern coming out of spring. There were simply too many big plays from the USC receivers against a defensive scheme that needs the corners to be effective in coverage. It’s such a glaring problem that Kiffin said he will likely move Josh Shaw from safety to corner in the fall. Shaw had played corner last fall, but he moved to safety in the spring and was the best player in the secondary. The good news is that the Trojans should have plenty of bodies at safety to absorb the loss.
3. Impact of injuries and physical practices: There was a lot made of the fact that the Trojans were going to increase hitting in practice as part of the plan to be more physical in 2013. Kiffin had elected not to hit last fall in part to keep the team healthy with reduced roster numbers, but he ultimately decided that tackling in practice was simply too necessary. Then the injuries started to hit and by the time the end of spring rolled around, the Trojans had 20 players on the sidelines with various ailments, and they couldn’t tackle in the spring game. It’s unclear what the practice policy will be in the fall on this important issue.
The search continues at CB
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“There are some good parts about it,” said Kiffin in looking at the pros and cons of the physical way the team has practiced this spring. “I think that our guys that are still healthy are playing more physical than they were at the end of last year, and our front seven on defense is better because of it. But at the same time, obviously, we have a lot of players out.”
“It’s been kind of the theme of the spring -- very physical -- as we come down to one practice left here,” Kiffin said. “I think you’ll still see the stars out there making plays. We’re just going to have to be creative because we’re not going to be able to go at the same speed in between series, and obviously we can’t have two teams with only one tight end, and all of our formations use a tight end, so we’ll figure it out -- probably just a little more time in between [each] series.”
Agholor and Lee at corner?
“We really wanted to focus on keeping guys staying up today and that usually happens when we don’t go full pads,” Kiffin said. “I thought we were still able to have a physical practice.”
- From deep in his own end, Cody Kessler stood in the pocket against strong pressure and fired late to Nelson Agholor for 12 yards and a first down.
- Max Wittek had his chance with the ball near his goal line and he found Victor Blackwell with a quick strike, and Blackwell put on the jets to race for a long touchdown despite valiant pursuit from Leon McQuay III.
- Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick made a nice catch of a low-thrown ball across the middle from Wittek.
- McQuay popped the ball loose from Cope-Fitzpatrick after a short catch.
One of the most fiery drills of any practice is when the ball is placed inside the 5-yard line and the offense takes its shots at the end zone.
"The story of the day was the passing game and the offense in general,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “All three quarterbacks played great and it was obviously great to have Marqise back.”
Wittek got the start with the first unit and quickly hit De'Von Flournoy with a nice touch pass over Anthony Brown for 25 yards. On another drive he completed a 40-yard pass to Lee and then closed out the drive with a 20-yard scoring pass to Nelson Agholor. Wittek also had a 4-yard touchdown to Lee with a back shoulder throw against coverage from Brown. Wittek ended the day completing 14 of 17 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
Lee wasted no time in showing everybody that he is officially back. In the early part of the scrimmage he caught a 60-yard touchdown on a go route from Cody Kessler. Later in the day he caught a bubble pass and put a juke move on Chris Hawkins to set up a 20-yard gain. Simply put, Lee looked every bit the reigning Biletnikoff winner with 10 catches for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Those weren’t the only standouts for the offense, though.
Justin Davis continues to impress, as he had 17 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. Davis showed some power on a short run, overpowering Lamar Dawson. He also read a good block from Kevin Graf to get a first down on a 3rd-and-short. His prettiest run came near the end of the scrimmagewith the ball at the 30. Davis broke up the middle and was headed for the end zone before Josh Shaw tracked him down at the 3-yard line. Davis punched it in from there two plays later.
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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.
“The offense did a lot better today,” Kiffin said. “It was good to see them bounce back that way after what happened on Tuesday. They came out today with a much better mindset.”
It was Davis who got things going with a pair of long touchdown runs in a team drill. The smooth freshman, who has provided multiple promising moments in his brief time at USC, took both runs to the left side and showed a combination of speed and moves to get to the end zone.
Morgan followed in the next drill with a 10-yard touchdown run, showing a quick burst through the line. A few plays later, Morgan took a handoff and went down in a pile after a short gain. When he came up, he was limping a little and did not return.
Allen took his turn as the lead runner at the end of the day when the Trojans were in goal-line situations. The chatter between the offense and defense had reached a crescendo as time was running out in practice and both sides were eager for victory. With the ball at the five-yard line, Allen was able to punch in two touchdowns, including the final play of the day to signal a win for the offense. Davis also had a short touchdown run in the goal-line drill.
“I thought D.J. Morgan was having a very good day before he went down,” Kiffin said. “Justin Davis had a great day.”
It was also a good day at the quarterback spot, Max Wittek looked much better than he did on Tuesday, while Max Browne had his best practice as a Trojan.
Wittek got things going early with a deep touchdown pass to De’Von Flournoy against solid coverage from Ryan Henderson.
In a red-zone drill, Browne hit Nelson Agholor as Torin Harris went for the ball and missed, so Agholor was able to go in for the 20-yard score. Browne also hit a pair of short touchdowns to Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. The highlight throw of the day for Browne came when he hit Farmer on a 55-yard completion. It was yet another sign of the accurate touch that Browne has shown on the deep ball so far, and of the fact that Farmer is continuing to make plays as well.
“George has stayed healthy and he’s doing well,” Kiffin said. “We need him to make the hard plays, to be physical, and he’s doing that. It’s been great to see.”
O-line adjusting to coaching changes
One of the primary areas of emphasis for the Trojans this year will be to get more physical, and that starts with the line. To that end, Kiffin has put two coaches on the offensive line, adding Mike Summers and keeping James Cregg, who had been the line coach for the past three years, as his assistant. There was some curiosity as to how the arrangement would work but, through the first three weeks, Kiffin is pleased with what he sees.
“Mike Summers has done a really good job of coming in and capturing the group,” Kiffin said. “It’s worked out like we had hoped with the two of them in combination, that’s why we put two coaches at such an important position.”
Xavier Grimble will miss the remainder of spring with a chest fracture. There was no update on Morgan after practice. Jordan Simmons missed practice after getting sick earlier in the afternoon.
* Ryan Henderson had multiple solid tackles on the day coming up from his corner position. Two of them were on Agholor, including one at the end of the day when emotions were high and his big hit brought a huge roar from the defensive sideline.
* Anthony Brown also had a solid tackle for no gain from the corner spot.
* Josh Shaw read a screen pass from Cody Kessler to Agholor and he was able to bat the ball down.
* J.R. Tavai recorded a sack of Browne.
* Leonard Williams tracked Davis along the line of scrimmage for no gain.
Notables in attendance
Naijiel Hale, David Sills, Steven Mitchell, Nico Falah and several members of the Chaminade Eagles program.
“It was a slow adjustment at first for me because things are so different at this level. There were little things I could get away with in high school, some bad habits, but you need to pay attention to those techniques here. I’m getting those little things down right now. The good thing is that I get a first chance to learn everything now in spring and then I will get another camp in the fall. That will really help me learn the playbook. I’m not sure about redshirting, I’ll just work hard every day and see what happens.” -- Justin Davis
When one player is forced to sit on the sideline, it gives another player the chance for extended reps with the hope of showing the coaches he is ready for a bigger role. For the injured player, there is still plenty of time to return either in spring or in fall camp before the season begins. As quarterback Max Wittek noted after a recent knee injury, “you never want this to happen, but if it’s going to happen, better to have it happen now.”
On the same day that Wittek got hurt, Marqise Lee also went down with a “minor” knee injury and has been held out as well. There isn’t as much of an impact here as Lee certainly isn’t in any competition for his starting job. If anything, his absence gave the other receivers a chance to step up and the overall group is doing well from top to bottom. Right now, Nelson Agholor appears to be the clear leader for the starting spot opposite Lee.
A recent loss came with the news that Silas Redd would undergo surgery this week for a torn meniscus. Redd is the established senior starter at tailback, but he has only been on the USC campus for eight months, so any time spent on the field was beneficial. Instead, Redd will be out until fall camp and the Trojans are further limited at tailback with Tre Madden still not cleared for full contact due to his knee rehab. That means the remaining spring practices will be huge for guys like D.J. Morgan, Buck Allen and maybe even Justin Davis, although it remains to be seen how much a recent broken finger will hamper him.
The offensive line had been fairly healthy until the news that Chad Wheeler will miss the rest of spring with a knee injury. Wheeler had added bulk and was progressing nicely as the No. 2 left tackle.
On the defensive side of the ball, injuries are really impacting the interior depth on the line and the safety positions.
There are three linemen who have missed all of spring: J.R. Tavai, Greg Townsend and Cody Temple. All three figure to provide important depth at the three interior spots of the 5-2 defense, so it’s vital to get them back on the field. Right now, the Trojans have Kenny Bigelow as a legit reserve at nose tackle, but the other spots are being manned by players out of position such as Charles Burks. Scott Starr is also out of action until fall, and he is expected to be a key reserve behind Morgan Breslin.
At corner, the top player through the early part of spring was Kevon Seymour, but he has missed the last couple of days with an ankle injury. Devian Shelton is also out with a foot injury. That means extended reps for Torin Harris, Anthony Brown and Ryan Henderson, as well as the freshman Chris Hawkins.
USC coach Lane Kiffin said after Saturday’s scrimmage that the time off for spring break this week was coming at a good time for a team looking to get a few bodies back. The Trojans return to the practice field next Tuesday and having some of those injured players on the field will go a long way toward helping to determine starting spots.
Kiffin also acknowledged that the extra hitting in practices so far this spring -- done to achieve his goal of returning to a more physical style of play -- has played a part in having so many injuries. He said the team will continue to practice with full hitting for the rest of spring but gave no word on if there will be any changes in philosophy beyond that point.
With Shaw at strong safety, and Wright at free safety, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has two experienced contributors with tons of athleticism manning the center of the defensive backfield in his new scheme.
“I feel like we’re coming along good,” Wright said. “Me and Josh have known each other since our junior year in high school, so we already had that connection. We’re working together, we watch film together, and the communication between me and him is going really good right now.”
But it hasn’t just been Shaw and Wright who have stood out. In fact, over the course of the last week, it’s been freshman early-entrant Su’a Cravens who has emerged as a budding star. Lining up with the second unit at strong safety, as well as at nickelback in the team’s nickel package, he was particularly stellar on Tuesday, collecting two interceptions. And on the other side, it’s been another freshman, Leon McQuay III, who has drawn notice after spending the first week at cornerback.
Once a major question mark, the safety positions now appear to have been at least somewhat solidified, particularly when you consider the team will be getting reinforcements in the fall -- a time that figures to see the competition heat up even more.
“All of the safeties aren’t even here right now,” Wright said. “We’ve still got a couple of guys hurt, so it’s going to be a real competition come fall training camp. We’re going to have a lot of depth. Anybody can go with the ones or twos, so we don’t really look at who’s starting. We’re out here competing so everyone is good to play.”
Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.); Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.)
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What's the biggest question that has been answered?
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Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)
Silas Redd (5-10, 200, Sr.); D.J. Morgan (5-10, 190, RS. Jr.) OR Tre Madden (6-1, 220, RS So.) OR Javorious Allen (6-1, 210, RS So.) OR Justin Davis (6-1, 215, Fr.)
With a full season under his belt at USC, Redd looks comfortable and focused as the starter. Morgan showcased a couple of big plays this week, while Madden looked much sharper than you might imagine a year removed from his knee injury. Davis, meanwhile, has been perhaps the hit of the early-entrant group so far, making the most of his limited carries in practice.
Soma Vainuku (6-0, 250, RS. So.); Jahleel Pinner (5-11, 225, So.)
Two of the team's hardest workers, Vainuku and Pinner alternated as the team’s primary fullbacks. It remains to be seen, however, if they’ll take on a bigger role in the offense.