USC Trojans: Soma Vainaku

Trojans hitting stride at right time

November, 24, 2013
The Trojans arrived home in Los Angeles on Sunday morning in a good position.

Coming off a satisfying 49-27 victory over Colorado, USC extended its win streak to five games and an overall 6-1 record under interim coach Ed Orgeron. It might not have been enough to get the Trojans into the Pac-12 title game -- ASU clinched the berth from the south on Saturday night -- but that bit of news will do little to dampen the enthusiasm of the players and coaches.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans' win over Colorado.
There is too much else to celebrate about what this team has accomplished to worry about the title game. Yes, it would have been nice for the program, especially considering the Trojans have yet to play in the game as it enters its third year in existence. But to focus solely on the title game would be a disservice to everything else that has gone on with this program over the last seven weeks, a process that has seen the team continue to improve to the point where they are playing their best football of the year at a time when the Bruins come to the Coliseum.

Not only do the Trojans have a chance to put the finishing touches on an amazing in-season turnaround with a victory over UCLA, they also have a chance to right a painful memory from last year. In their first season under coach Jim Mora, the Bruins got the upper hand in 2012 with a 38-28 victory in the Rose Bowl, a win that was all the more notable considering USC had beaten UCLA 50-0 the previous year.

The Bruins have tried to use the momentum from last year to lay claim to ownership of Los Angeles, on the field and on the recruiting trail. The slow start to the USC season appeared to give credence to those efforts, all while UCLA got a big road win over Nebraska and had high-profile stars such as Brett Hundley and Anthony Barr.

Then came the coaching switch for USC and tides of change have swung local momentum back in favor of the Trojans. While USC has been thriving under Orgeron, the Bruins are 3-3 in their last six games. While the Bruins were once ranked in the top 10 and the Trojans were unranked, the two teams now stand right next to each other in the rankings at No. 22 (UCLA) and 23 (USC).

The USC players are certainly going to want revenge for last year. Trojans safety Dion Bailey said in the locker room following the Colorado game that he and his teammates needed to “remind the Bruins” of who runs the town. That bit of chatter about ownership rights of the city is always part of this rivalry so that’s nothing new, but it doesn't figure to be the overriding storyline of this game.

The ongoing saga of Orgeron and his pursuit of the full-time USC job will dominate the discussions leading up to Saturday night, but what shouldn't get lost in the shuffle is the fact his team is playing well right now, as good as he could have hoped for in such an important matchup.

USC has a quarterback in Cody Kessler who has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games while growing into a clear leader of the offense. The running game has received a huge boost from the play of Buck Allen, with his nine rushing touchdowns in the last four games and the splash of explosiveness he adds on the ground. There is also the thought in opponents' minds now of a 260-pound fullback in Soma Vainuku who can move pretty well, too.

On the outside there is still the reality that Marqise Lee is bothered by injuries but Nelson Agholor has stepped up to help pick up some of the slack. Lee would love to be back on the field against UCLA to help make up for 2012 in what will likely be his final home game at the Coliseum. At tight end, Xavier Grimble showed on Saturday what can happen when the tight ends are healthy and utilized the right way as he led the team with six catches.

The development of the offensive line has to be considered one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It’s no accident when a team has four different running backs go for over 100 yards in a game, at some point the line is doing something right.

On defense, the USC front seven is starting to get recognition as one of the best units in college football. Leonard Williams is playing like an All-American and Devon Kennard isn’t far behind. It makes it all the more impressive to think the Trojans are doing this lately without leading sacker Morgan Breslin, primarily due to the fine play of J.R. Tavai.

There has been the dependable leadership from Hayes Pullard while Anthony Sarao stepped in for an injured Lamar Dawson without missing a beat. And what was once the biggest weakness on the team, the secondary play and coverage at the corner spot, has been stabilized by the physical presence of Josh Shaw while Bailey has been a playmaker at safety.

On top of all that, kicker Andre Heidari battled through his job being put up for grabs to nail the biggest kick of his career in the win over Stanford.

Those are a lot of positives for the Trojans, players who are rising up and playing well, and by no means are these the only players getting it done. Orgeron has provided substance to the loose atmosphere he has fostered with the Trojans and now he and his team have a chance to finish this magnificent regular season run in style.
The Trojans wrapped up the second week of spring ball with a scrimmage at the Coliseum that featured a strong performance from the defensive front.

“I really thought the front seven on the first-unit defense played well,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Hayes Pullard played great at linebacker while George Uko and Leonard Williams were dominant up front. The defense is really picking things up with the new scheme. I can’t imagine being more pleased.”

Pullard led the way for the defense with six tackles, including one for loss, while Kenny Bigelow added two sacks and Anthony Sarao had four tackles.

The offense was led by Cody Kessler, who continues to split time with Max Browne while Max Wittek is out with a knee injury. Kessler (13-19, 161 yards, one TD) provided the highlight play of the day with a 75-yard touchdown strike to Nelson Agholor while Browne (6-9, 69 yards) added a big play of his own with a 52-yard completion to Darreus Rogers. Buck Allen was the top rusher on the day with 11 carries for 65 yards.

“Kessler played great today,” Kiffin said. “He just continues to make plays. I thought Buck had a good day, too. He’s had a good camp overall.”

Kiffin confirmed that the injury to Wittek – who is expected to return to the field when the team comes back from spring break on March 26 – likely means that the quarterback competition will not be settled by the end of spring.

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USC can point to missed opportunities 

September, 16, 2012
The USC Trojans certainly had their chances with several opportunities to take control before Stanford really seized things in the second half in a 21-14 victory.

USC benefitted early when Stanford missed scoring chances in the kicking game. A long return on the opening kickoff set the Cardinal up for a quick field-goal attempt, but it hit the upright and bounced away. The USC defense had a nice goal-line stand to force another field-goal attempt, which simply missed wide left. Finally there was the blocked field goal by T.J. McDonald.

There were a pair of key third-down swings. In the middle of the third quarter with the Trojans leading 14-7, Stanford was stopped on a third-and-long run play deep in their end, and a resulting punt would likely have given USC the ball near midfield. Instead there was a personal foul penalty against George Uko and the drive continued. On the final Stanford scoring drive, Josh Nunes – not known for his running ability – ran for 12 yards on a third-and-10 with the ball at midfield. A stop there would have given the Trojans the ball in a tie game. Instead, Stanford took the lead and never gave it up.

In the third quarter, USC was faced with a fourth-and-1 from the Stanford 13-yard line. There was no Andre Heidari to rely on, but you have to imagine a 30-yard attempt would have been in Alex Wood’s range. There was also the option to go for it, which the Trojans did, and Matt Barkley ended up lofting a pass in the direction of Soma Vainuku, who got his hands on the ball despite good coverage from the defender. As they came to the ground, however, the defender was able to dislodge the ball and the pass was ruled incomplete. The Trojans had a real chance right there to extend the 14-7 lead but they came away empty.

WeAreSC Roundtable 

August, 30, 2012

US Presswire
Is it possible a unit led by Robert Woods (left) and Marqise Lee isn't the Trojans' best? It's possible when you have as much talent as this team.

WeAreSC staffers give their opinions on a variety of USC football topics as the Trojans prepare for the season opener Saturday against Hawaii.

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3 key issues for 2012 

November, 29, 2011
1) There are four positions where the Trojans are likely to have a player consider early entry to the NFL draft -- quarterback, left tackle, defensive end and free safety. Coincidentally, these four spots are pretty wide open in terms of a clear-cut successor to the current starter.

If Matt Barkley leaves, any one of the three backups could end up being the starting quarterback next year. The primary backup to Matt Kalil at left tackle is walk-on Nathan Guertler. Could current starting right tackle Kevin Graf or his backup, freshman Aundrey Walker, flip over if Kalil leaves? Kevin Greene has yet to show that he is ready to contribute behind Nick Perry at defensive end. Things look good for the emergence of Greg Townsend, but he will still only be a redshirt freshman next year. Drew McAllister is pretty game-tested behind T.J. McDonald at free safety, but his health is going to be an issue if he's expected to be the full-time guy.

Any way you look at it, the Trojans are either going to need to fill some big holes in a hurry or at least start to develop some eventual replacements.

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Redshirts making noise 

October, 9, 2011
With the possibility that George Farmer could end up burning his redshirt as a tailback this weekend, we look at other freshman redshirts who have performed well lately on the USC practice field:

QB Max Wittek: USC coach Lane Kiffin named Cody Kessler the No. 2 QB on the roster this season, and many assumed that meant Kessler had beaten out Wittek for a future role. First of all, the two freshmen quarterbacks are very close in ability, so it wouldn't be fair to assume that either is drastically ahead of the other right now. It's also important to note how well Wittek has played since assuming the role of service team QB each week and the reps that come with that role. Wittek is a classic drop-back passer who has definitely impressed onlookers with his work this fall.

FB Soma Vainuku: It has been tough for Vainuku to learn a new position, but he is gradually making progress. There had been some hope that he would be able to quickly make the switch from high school tailback to college fullback, but that did not happen and the coaches were forced to move Rhett Ellison and Ross Cumming to fullback. Ellison in particular has been a real mentor for Vainuku in terms of how to prepare, while assistant coach Kennedy Polamalu has worked with him on the nuances of the position. By the time the 2012 season rolls around we should see Vainuku firmly entrenched as the starter, and he will be there for years to come.

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