USC Trojans: leonard williams

USC storylines at Boston College 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
2:30
PM PT
Here are five storylines for the USC Trojans against Boston College on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:00
AM PT
Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 concludes.

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.

Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.

USC roundtable: Impact, battles and more 

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
7:15
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The WeAreSC staffers discuss various topics related to the opening of USC Trojans fall camp practices next Monday.

Who will have the biggest camp impact? (offense/defense)

Garry Paskwietz: Steve Sarkisian says this will be a physical run-first offense and that should mean plenty of opportunities for Buck Allen to establish himself early as a critical piece of the system. The reigning Trojans MVP is in great shape and appears ready for that kind of role. On defense, Leonard Williams may be the most talented and Hayes Pullard is the most productive -- but in terms of impact, I'm going to go with Su'a Cravens. His athleticism should allow for him to make a lot of plays.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThe Trojans' offense will run through quarterback Cody Kessler and tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen.
Johnny Curren: On offense, I'm going to go with Allen. The fourth-year junior tailback is in fantastic shape right now, and with Sarkisian showing a real desire to pound the ball on the ground, he should get plenty of chances to shine. On defense, Williams is the one to watch. Close to 100 percent after undergoing offseason surgery on his shoulder, there's every reason to believe he'll have an even bigger 2014 campaign than his season of 2013, when he garnered ESPN.com first-team All-America honors.

Greg Katz: Cody Kessler on offense. The Trojans' offense may have more explosive players, but the system doesn't work unless Kessler works, and he has been relentless in not only learning Sark's no-huddle, fast-paced offense but executing it and teaching others. Williams on defense. Teammates of the "Big Cat" know he played with pain in his shoulder last season and was never 100 percent. In the summer, however, it was darn scary just how must quicker and intense he was during voluntary workouts.

What will be the best position battle?

Paskwietz: The Trojans enter camp with no clear-cut starter at left guard and as many as four candidates for the job. The one veteran in the mix is Jordan Simmons, but he is coming off knee surgery last fall. The other three possibilities are all true freshmen in Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama. All are extremely talented, but all will be taking part in their first fall camp practices as Trojans, though Lobendahn did participate in spring drills.

Curren: I'm tempted to say the battle at Sam linebacker between Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell, but after seeing J.R. Tavai shine throughout the summer workouts, I'll go with the competition between he and Scott Starr at rush end. Both performers are excellent athletes who play physical and fast to the ball off the edge, and I look forward to watching them bring out the best in each other in fall camp.

Katz: Because of the importance of both offensive guard positions, one would have to lump this as a critical unit position battle. Whether starting senior right guard Aundrey Walker, coming off an ankle injury, and Simmons, coming off of a knee injury, at left guard can be physically in shape and hold up to the pace of the offense remains in question. What isn't in question are the true freshmen O-liners such as Lobendahn, who is a well advanced talent despite his inexperience.

Who will be the surprise player of camp?

Paskwietz: It's hard to call Adoree' Jackson a surprise player in anything when you consider he was the highest-rated recruit in this USC class. The surprise will come, however, in just how good he will be from the word go. And I'm not talking just at one spot, he will make a case for playing time on offense, defense and special teams.

Curren: I really liked what I saw out of Leon McQuay III, both in the spring as well as this past summer. He's going to really open some eyes in his role as the starting free safety. Having bulked up considerably since his freshman season, he's also played with a new level of confidence over the past six months.


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LOS ANGELES -- With the recent season-ending ACL injury to Kenny Bigelow, a talented redshirt freshman defensive tackle, it makes a USC Trojans fan ponder which players on offense and defense head coach Steve Sarkisian cannot afford to lose?

Here is our list of the top five offensive and defensive players the Trojans need the most in 2014:

Offense

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Eight Pac-12 players were named first-team preseason All-Americans by Athlon's on Monday, while 11 others were named to the other three teams.

Oregon, Stanford and USC each had a pair of first-team selections. The Ducks were represented by center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford's pair was OT Andrus Peat and kick returner Ty Montgomery, while USC was represented by WR Nelson Agholor and DT Leonard Williams.

The other two first-team selections were UCLA LB Myles Jack and Washington LB Shaq Thompson.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's top Heisman Trophy candidate was second-team behind FSU's Jameis Winston, who won the trophy last year.

On the third team were three defenders: UCLA LB Eric Kendricks, USC LB Hayes Pullard and Washington DT Danny Shelton. Agholor also was named a punt returner, so he got two spots.

On the fourth team: Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong, Oregon State C Isaac Seumalo and USC O-lineman Max Tuerk, who was listed as a guard even though he plays center. Stanford safety Jordan Richards was fourth team with the defense, while Utah kicker Andy Phillips was a fourth-team specialist.

Roundtable: Future award winners

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
7:00
AM PT
With many postseason awards coming out with their watch lists, here are our thoughts on which members of the USC football team are most likely to win the following awards at some point in their career.

Heisman Trophy

Garry Paskwietz: Javorius "Buck" Allen. Every so often there is an aura around a player when he is “the man,” and Allen has that right now with the Trojans. The players knew what he could do before he got his chance, and they know how special he was once he finally got on the field. He has bulked up in preparation of carrying a bigger load, and he has the combination of quickness as a runner and good pass-catching ability to put up huge numbers.

[+] EnlargeUSC
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJavorius "Buck" Allen had four 100-yard rushing efforts in USC's final six games in 2013.
Johnny Curren: Allen. After breaking out over the second half of the 2013 season, Allen looks to be in even better physical shape this summer. And as everyone saw last year with Bishop Sankey at Washington, Sarkisian’s offense definitely provides the opportunity for a tailback to put up big numbers.

Greg Katz: Allen. If Sark gets the same type of production out of Allen that he did with Sankey at Washington and the Trojans do well, the Florida native has a chance at the big one.

Davey O'Brien Award

GP: Max Browne. With all due respect to Cody Kessler, who I believe is the right quarterback for the Trojans right now, I think it is Browne who has the best chance to eventually achieve this kind of national honor. Max has very good throwing skills when it comes to touch and accuracy, and he is only building on those while he is waiting his turn.

JC: Kessler. After showing promise last year during a tumultuous season, Kessler has the potential to thrive in 2014 while directing an up-tempo offense that figures to really rack up yardage while also putting up more points.

GK: Browne. Kessler will have a fine career, but when Browne finally steps in with knowledge of the new offense, watch out.

Doak Walker Award

GP: Allen. He has the total package to be in the mix.

JC: Allen. Again, with what he’s show as of late, Allen just might find himself in the running for this award, either in 2014 or 2015.

GK: Allen. If “Buck” continues to improve dramatically and the Trojans’ offensive line can improve each game, Allen could become a national household name.

Biletnikoff Award

GP: Nelson Agholor: One of the key traits that Agholor inherited from Robert Woods and Marqise Lee was preparation, and his work ethic set the tone for the Trojans in spring ball. When you combine that with his game-breaking ability, this award is certainly within his reach.

JC: Agholor. After waiting his turn behind both Woods and Lee, Agholor is the featured wideout at USC now, and it’s a role that he’s more than ready to take on. Having led the team with 918 receiving yards in 2013, he already has proven himself on the field, and now with more passes coming his way, he could really explode in 2014.

GK: Agholor. He can be just as explosive as Lee, in his own way. It’s a matter of consistency and his quarterback.

Mackey Award

GP: Bryce Dixon. He comes to USC with the ability to be a unique athlete at the tight spot. He reminds me a little of former Trojan Mackey Award winner Fred Davis. Maybe not as powerful as Davis but a similar kind of pass-catching weapon.

JC: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. Cope-Fitzpatrick had an outstanding spring, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction. Whether it’s this year or next, he just might have the ability to light up the stat sheet in an offense that allowed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who won this award in 2013, to really flourish at Washington.

GK: Dixon. This kid has the potential to be someone special at tight end. If he can block as well as he can catch and run, he could leave Troy as one of the great ones.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Leonard Williams posted 73 tackles and six sacks last season.
Outland Trophy

GP: Leonard Williams. I am starting to look at Williams the way I looked at Shaun Cody in the middle of the USC D-line. Just a special talent who raised the level of play around him and was a great teammate while doing it. I wouldn’t put any limits on what he can accomplish next year.

JC: Williams. Predicted by many to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft, there’s little doubt that Williams is one of the top linemen in all of college football. It will be interesting to see just how much further he can take his game in the coming months, and if he continues to make strides, this is an award that is definitely within reach.

GK: Williams. The stars are all aligned for Williams to achieve a lineman’s highest honor. Only one Trojan has done it before (OL Ron Yary, 1967) and if Leonard takes this award he’ll always be remembered as one of the legendary Trojans defensive linemen.

Lombardi Award

GP: Viane Talamaivao. You don’t find too many offensive linemen with this combination of size, strength and athleticism. Viane has taken reps at center and both guards spots so far in summer workouts and has looked comfortable in each setting so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some early contributions this year.

JC: Williams. Again, if it all comes together for Williams on the field in 2014, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see honor after honor come his way.

GK: Max Tuerk. The combination of brains, brawn and nasty to go along with his experience puts Max in a position to be only the second Trojan to win the award. If Tuerk can produce like former Trojans Lombardi winner OG Brad Budde (1979), he stands a shot.

Butkus Award

GP: Hayes Pullard. As a productive three-year starter, Pullard is on the verge of putting together one of the more impressive statistical careers we’ve ever seen from a USC linebacker -- and that is saying something. As the unquestioned leader of a group that could be very good this year, he has a chance to get the kind of spotlight needed for the award.

JC: Pullard. Having led the Trojans in tackles in two of the past three seasons, Pullard has already established himself as one of the conference’s top linebackers.

GK: Pullard. There is something about Pullard from one season to another that seems to cry out for recognition. Hayes is a preseason All-American and should the Trojans defense live up to expectations, Pullard will be having a whale of a season.

Thorpe Award

GP: Su'a Cravens. I’m going to go with Cravens on this one, and the main reason I pick him ahead of Leon McQuay III or Adoree’ Jackson (aside from his overwhelming physical skills) is primarily because I think Su’a has a head start and would be the first of the three to win. All three are capable, but I can see Cravens bursting on the national scene this year and setting the stage for a strong run at the award in 2015.

JC: Jackson. I know, I know… way too early to be talking about big-time honors for a player who has yet to take a snap in college. But from what I saw of him on the high school level, as well as in the early workouts at USC this summer, Jackson is a uniquely talented athlete who has the potential to do some special things at USC.

GK: Cravens. The second coming of Ronnie Lott/Troy Polamalu? It would be hard to say that Cravens didn’t live up to all the hype in his freshman season. Yes, he got injured and that slowed his progress, but he showed enough stuff to warrant great expectations. If he did what he did as a true freshman, what’s he going to look like as a junior?

Most important player: USC

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
9:15
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All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Players series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Marcus Mariota is Oregon's most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too. USC’s Leonard Williams might be the best defensive lineman in the nation, but is he the Trojans' most important player considering the talent and depth on their D-line?

Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on them living up to expectations. Or their absence.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsNelson Agholor figures to improve on his six TD receptions from 2013.
USC: WR Nelson Agholor

2013 production: He caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns. Agholor also returned 18 punts for 343 yards and a pair of touchdowns (19.1 average) and 10 kickoffs for 175 yards (17.5 average).

Why Agholor is important: This was a tough one, because there are a lot of players who could be (and are) difference-makers for the Trojans, be it Agholor, the aforementioned Williams, Randall Telfer, Hayes Pullard, Buck Allen, Max Tuerk, Su'a Cravens, etc.

But like Stanford’s Most Important Player, Ty Montgomery, Agholor is the type of player who can change a game on offense and on special teams. With his sure hands and twin V-12 engines … err … feet, Agholor posted the nation’s second-best punt return average with 19.1 yards. He also tied a Pac-12 record with two punt returns for touchdowns against Cal -- including a 93-yard return, which was the second-longest in school history.

Who plays opposite Agholor might still be up for grabs, with Darreus Rogers, Victor Blackwell and George Farmer (yeah, remember him?) among others in the mix.

So is it the running game that opens up the passing game? Or is it the other way around? With a burner like Agholor racing up and down the sidelines, he’s certainly going to draw the extra attention of safeties who might otherwise be focused on the box. And most reports out of USC’s spring session (including the practices witnessed by the Pac-12 blog) saw Agholor emerge as the team’s hardest-working player and team leader. Not a bad thing to have when transitioning to a new head coach. Doesn’t hurt that he was tutored by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

You could make a case for a lot of other players. And you'd be right. But with a potential Biletnikoff winner in Agholor, you certainly can't go wrong.

Other Most Important Players:
It will come as no surprise that Mel Kiper Jr. sees two of the five best senior QBs and three of the six best underclass QBs coming from the Pac-12 Insider.

But who would have thought that three of the 11 best defensive tackles Insider would come from the Pac-12, while none came from the D-line rich SEC?

USC's Leonard Williams, a junior, is a likely top-10 pick next spring, and he also is a candidate for top pick overall. But Kiper also really likes Williams' buddy at UCLA, Ellis McCarthy.
Really emerged in 2013 as his first-team reps arrived. McCarthy was a big-time recruit, but he had to learn about leverage and keeping blockers occupied, not just looking to shed them immediately and make plays in the backfield. He has a powerful, 6-4, 330-pound frame and could emerge as a likely first-rounder.

The third Pac-12 DT is Washington senior Danny Shelton.

Kiper also likes Pac-12 cornerbacks Insider. He rates Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as the No. 1 senior, USC's Josh Shaw as No. 2 and Oregon State's Steven Nelson as No. 3.

Among the underclass CBs, Kiper ranks Washington's Marcus Peters No. 2 and Stanford's Alex Carter as "5A."

On the defensive downside, Kiper doesn't including any Pac-12 defensive ends on his list Insider, which bodes well for those QBs.

On offense, Kiper likes Pac-12 receivers Insider but not running backs. He rates Stanford's Ty Montgomery the No. 2 senior receiver and Arizona State's Jaelen Strong and USC's Nelson Agholor as the Nos. 2 and 3 underclassmen, but Oregon's Byron Marshall -- at 5B -- is the only conference running back to make the list.
USC has started voluntary summer throwing sessions, and it's a great time to see where players are at in terms of physical shape and also to gauge the work ethic of the players when no coaches are around.

One of the things that has jumped out so far is just how organized the sessions are. Steve Sarkisian spent an entire practice during the last week of spring ball showing his players how to run a summer workout, the point being that he wanted to provide as much structure as possible so that the players could maximize those workouts.

The result has been sessions that feature a walk-through, a group stretch, various drill areas such as medicine balls and tall bags, a 7-on-7 period and a series of sprints at the end. As would be expected, the leaders of the sessions are players such as Cody Kessler, Hayes Pullard and Nelson Agholor. The veterans are also doing a lot of teaching to younger players, specifically the incoming freshmen who are taking part in USC workouts for the first time.

Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw are taking part in the workouts after sitting out spring ball as a precaution for lingering injuries. Another player back in action is Steven Mitchell, the shifty wide receiver who suffered a knee injury last year in the summer drills. It’s been clear in limited action that Mitchell is well on his way to a good recovery. He is looking very fluid.

[+] EnlargeTalamaivao
Erik McKinney/ESPN.comUSC signee Viane Talamaivao is working at center in summer workouts.
It will be interesting to watch the situation with Viane Talamaivao, who is getting a look at center. Talamaivao has never played the position before but there was a lot of speculation in the recruiting process that he could ultimately end up at center. He certainly has the athleticism to make the move, but it remains to be seen how he will adjust to snapping the ball, the various reads, etc.

Speaking of Talamaivao, his family is involved with the Prime Time Polynesian Kumite lineman camp, one of which will be held this weekend in Corona, California. Several of top linemen from the area are expected to be in attendance, including Rasheem Green, Keisean Lucier-South and Joseph Wicker.

Another attendee will be Sarkisian, who is scheduled to be one of many college coaches at the camp. The ability of coaches to take part in camps away from their campus has been in the news a lot lately, particularly with coaches from the SEC objecting to coaches from other schools holding camps in their area. It’s something that likely will be addressed in future NCAA rules, but for now it’s something that is perfectly legal and it will give Sarkisian a chance to watch some of the top USC prospects in action.
It’s time to start thinking about preseason watch lists. And the first one out is the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is given annually to the defensive player who has the biggest “impact” on his team -- impact being an acronym for Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.

The award is in its 11th year.

Of the 42 players on this year’s watch list, 11 come from the Pac-12:
UCLA’s Anthony Barr was the 2013 winner. Cal’s Dante Hughes was the league’s only other winner, in 2006.

Other previous winners include Manti Te’o (Notre Dame, 2012), Luke Kuechly (Boston College, 2011), J.J. Watt (Wisconsin, 2010), Jerry Hughes (TCU, 2009), James Laurinaitis (Ohio State, 2008), Glenn Dorsey (LSU, 2007), DeMeco Ryans (Alabama, 2005) and David Pollack (Georgia, 2004).

You can click here for the complete watch list.
ESPN’s Todd McShay released his Way-too-early 2015 mock draft on Wednesday, giving a very early look into the future of some potential NFL draftees next season. Once again, the SEC leads the way, putting 10 players in the first 32 picks of McShay's first mock draft.

McShay predicts the No. 1 draft pick being a defensive lineman just like the 2014 draft. Only, instead of coming out of the SEC, he believes that defensive lineman will be one out of the Pac-12, USC's Leonard Williams.

McShay put eight Pac-12 players in the first round, including three top-10 picks. The ACC is behind the Pac-12 with seven picks, though six of those are from Florida State. The Big Ten has four players on the list while the Big 12 landed three.

Oregon leads the way for the Pac-12 with three players in the top 20 picks -- cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu. USC got on the board with two players in the top 32 while UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State each had one player.
The introduction of the up-tempo offense to the USC spring practice agenda was an adjustment for everyone, particularly a 6-foot-5, 293-pound junior college transfer who was already dealing with the transition to the four-year level.

Such was the case during spring for defensive lineman Claude Pelon, a midyear transfer from Mesa (Ariz.) College who came to USC with high expectations of being able to contribute right away in the middle of the line.

“The pace is very fast, that was the biggest adjustment for me,” Pelon said. “That first week was pretty hard to deal with, but I adjusted and it’s going the way I want it to right now.”

[+] EnlargeClaude Pelon
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesClaude Pelon has moved up the depth chart quickly after enrolling midyear from junior college.
As Pelon got more and more comfortable this spring, the USC coaches noticed his raw strength and ability to move up and down the line. Those second-team reps suddenly became first-team reps and by the time spring ended, Pelon had earned a spot atop the depth chart at defensive end.

“Claude is a guy who made a lot of strides,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We started to see his burst, we started to see him in the backfield more. I just want him to keep fighting hard, all the time, with great technique. I know it’s in him.”

This spring was a positive start to a USC career for Pelon that began in Florida and took a detour through the junior college route in Arizona. When it finally came time to pick a school last fall, Pelon had USC and Washington among his final choices so when Sarksisian and staff made their way to Los Angeles, it made the decision final for Pelon.

“I had to go to junior college to take care of some academics and grow up as a person,” Pelon said. “The situation worked out great for me with USC because I know I’m with the best coaching staff to help get me to the next level. I’m loving everything about this place and I don’t feel homesick at all, there’s no humidity here!”

Pelon, who had two sacks in the USC spring game session, also has the benefit of having a fellow Floridian on the defensive line in All-American Leonard Williams, who sat out the spring with an injured shoulder.

“Leonard and I talk a lot off the field about making sure I’m doing everything right,” Pelon said. “I can’t wait to see him back on the field, it’s just going to make us that much better as a group.”

There also has been advice from nose tackle Antwaun Woods about what Pelon can expect in the fall when playing home games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

“Antwaun tells me I won’t believe what it’s like for the games,” Pelon said. “He said when you walk down the tunnel you can hear the roar of the crowd going crazy. Man, I can’t wait to feel that.”

The best of spring football at USC 

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
2:00
PM PT
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.


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LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans true freshman offensive left guard Toa Lobendahn stood in the west end zone of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and wondered if he had really started in the annual spring game on Saturday in front of 17,500 tanning, cardinal and gold-clad fans.

“It was overwhelming. Well, not really overwhelming but joyful,” Lobendahn said moments after completing his first spring game. “It was great being in front of all these fans.”

It’s been quite a spring of learning, performing and adjusting to life on a college campus for Lobendahn, who left La Habra (Calif.) High after the 2013 fall semester of his senior year to enroll in time for spring practice.


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As the Trojans move into the fourth week of spring ball drills, the coaches are still searching to balance the desire for physical play with the need to keep players healthy on a reduced roster.

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe USC defense is likely to look much different in the fall with injured players like Josh Shaw back in action.
When Steve Sarkisian set the agenda for spring ball, he made it clear that one of his goals was to have all the injured players healthy for the fall. With injured veterans like Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw, the decision was made to sit them out entirely. And there was a lot of caution shown in terms of bringing other players back as well.

Sarkisian chose to focus a lot of attention this spring on the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball, including morning walk-throughs and in-practice teaching sessions that would allow those injured players the opportunity to mentally stay with the rest of the team.

One of the trade-offs has been fewer opportunities for live tackling during practice, a concession that no coach wants to make but that sometimes can come into play. There were a few dozen live plays during a recent practice session at the Coliseum -- including a spirited Oklahoma drill -- and other isolated physical sessions, but they have been limited in scope.

“You would love to practice [live tackling] all the time, but you have to be smart about the way you do it,” USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You work on tackling in controlled environments where you limit the number of bodies potentially going to the ground, you work that way in one-on-one drills, you work it on bags. But when you get to go live, you have to go. There’s nothing like live tackling.”

It’s not like the Trojans don’t have plenty of opportunities to tackle if they want. Through nine days of spring ball, the new up-tempo offensive system has run more than 1,000 plays (more than 2,000 if you include morning walk-throughs), and there is an added benefit there as the defensive players must also adapt quickly to the new pace of play.

“The offense can have the advantage late in the game with the up-tempo,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we practice this way, to prepare for games.”

That late-game advantage would be evident based on what Wilcox has seen so far from his defense.

“We have a tendency to start practices fast and we play well for the first half, but we don’t do as well in the second half,” Wilcox said. “That’s where we have to continue to emphasize finishing strong because the end of the game is when you get up there in play count. When you get to plays 100 to 120, that’s when you really need to sustain things mentally and that’s something we’ve got to work on. The effort has been good, we just have to get better. I would have thought through nine days that we would have it down pat and look great, but I don’t know if that’s reality.”

It would be natural to expect things to look better in the fall, especially when so many of the injured players return. In addition to starters such as Williams and Shaw, there are also players with starting experience like J.R. Tavai, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Brown who are expected back in action.

In the meantime, other players will continue to fill in during the last two weeks of spring to get as much experience as they can.

“With the injured guys out, there’s some guys taking reps right now who won’t be getting reps in the fall,” Wilcox said. “But that’s OK, we need everybody and you’re always looking to build on your depth. It’s a chance for those guys to show us something to maybe earn a bigger role.”

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