The Trojans returned to the spring practice field on Tuesday with a full pads session that was dominated by the defense, particularly the front seven.
It’s been a familiar theme of spring to see the defense playing well, and that’s a sign that the players are picking up on the schemes being installed by new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
“We’ve got a long way to go but we like what we see so far,” Pendergast said. “We want athletic guys with football instincts. Guys who are smart, tough and competitive players.”
One of the defensive players who has played well consistently this spring is linebacker Lamar Dawson, who was named MVP of the day by USC coach Lane Kiffin. Dawson continues to alternate with Anthony Sarao at the Will linebacker spot, but it’s clear that the 5-2 system is one that plays to his strengths. In fact, Kiffin called Dawson the most improved player on the team through seven days of spring ball drills.
Another standout player from the day was cornerback Torin Harris, who had multiple pass breakups. Torin also had an impressive interception when Cody Kessler tried to hit George Farmer deep down the middle of the field, but Harris tipped the ball and came down with the pick. With Kevon Seymour out of action on Tuesday, Harris was one of the second-unit corners with Anthony Brown and Chris Hawkins running with the first unit.
“I feel healthy right now and that’s the key,” Harris said. “You can play free when you are healthy, and I feel good. This new defensive system is perfect for me because it allows the corners to be aggressive. It’s a simple defense, so we picked it up quickly but it causes a lot of problems for an offense.”
“We just wanted to see how they looked together to get a feel for who we have,” Pendergast said. “Those are the things you look at in spring.”
Martin on the move
Marcus Martin took the snaps with the first unit at center today with Max Tuerk at left guard. The coaches had said prior to the spring-break session that they would evaluate the tape of both players at center, and it appears as if Martin will get the extended look in that role.
“Marcus looked really good, so we’ll head down that direction and see what happens,” Kiffin said. “I’m surprised at how comfortable Marcus has looked, that’s usually a spot where there is more of a transition. This doesn’t mean anything is set in stone, but it’s something that will help both he and Max because they will know multiple positions.”
Interestingly, Kiffin said the coaches also talked about the possibility of putting Tuerk at left tackle and moving Aundrey Walker to left guard.
“We discussed the thought of putting Walker at guard and Tuerk at tackle, but we’re not ready to make that move,” Kiffin said. “Walker has improved this spring. He didn’t finish the year well, but we’ve seen his technique and confidence improve so far in spring, so we will continue to monitor that.”
Max Wittek returned to practice after being out since the first week of spring ball with a knee injury. Wittek didn’t look 100 percent, which is to be expected, but Kiffin said it’s nothing the coaches are concerned about after one day.
Kiffin did confirm that fullback Soma Vainuku will miss the remainder of spring with a knee injury. In Soma’s absence, Simi Vehikite moved from linebacker to fullback. There is no update on a return date for tight end Xavier Grimble, who continues to miss time with a rib injury. Marqise Lee has not been cleared yet, but Kiffin said that could happen pretty soon. Devian Shelton, J.R. Tavai and Temple were back on the practice field after sitting out earlier in the spring.
The USC student community was hit hard by the news that senior Sam Levine died last week during spring break in Mexico, but it was an especially tough blow for right tackle Kevin Graf, a close friend of Levine.
“He was my best friend since we were in third grade,” Graf said. “I’m dedicating this season to him. I’m going to act like I’m blocking for him and I’m not going to let anyone touch him.”
Kessler hit Nelson Agholor on a crossing pattern after Agholor made a pretty one-handed grab. It was a nice overall day for Agholor, as that wasn’t the only big play he made. Agholor also caught a deep pass between Demetrius Wright and Hayes Pullard on a very accurate throw by Max Browne.
Wright had a sack on Kessler. Wright left practice midway through with an injury, but there was no word on his status.
Hawkins had an interception of a Wittek pass.
Leonard Williams caused a fumble by Morgan.
Browne connected with Farmer on a beautiful 50-yard pass down near the goal line. Kiffin commented after practice about how well Browne has thrown the deep ball this spring. It was also a terrific over-the-shoulder catch by Farmer.
Andre Heidari hit a 48-yard field goal in a two minute drill.
Notables in attendance
“We had the players out running early in the morning yesterday. I think that got any lingering spring break out of their system.” -- Kiffin