USC Trojans: Steven Mitchell
But no matter what they do, USC's walking wounded aren’t remotely in the same condition as their healthy brethren, who are fit enough to stretch the limits of their physical being in Steve Sarkisian’s nonstop practice pace.
Despite watching their teammates practice and condition at a pace not seen on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields, there is an uneasiness that come regular season camp, in the heat of summer, the currently rehabilitating players could be in for a major conditioning shock.
Sarkisian feels that his available players in spring ball are now rounding into the type of shape needed for the regular season, and spring ball has been a catalyst to being in the type of condition needed for fall competition.
“That’s why we practice the way that we do,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we make it as hard we can throughout practice. This prepares our guys for a game-like atmosphere.”
Come practice in August, Sarkisian expects his healthy players to return ready to go from a conditioning standpoint, and he also knows the conditioning challenge is even more pronounced for those rehabbing.
“The guys [who] are injured have their work cut out for them when they get back,” Sarkisian said.
Here are six rehabilitating players being held out of spring ball (for the most part) who are expected to be key contributors in 2014. They all will be faced with the challenge of getting into “Sarkisian shape” by early August:
• RB Justin Davis: Given the sophomore’s early track record of success on and off the field, Davis -- who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in 2013 -- figures to be ready with an indisputable work ethic and relentless motor. Expect him to enter fall camp in top condition.
• LB Lamar Dawson: Recovering from a left knee injury, this senior will not only battle junior Anthony Sarao for his starting inside linebacker position, but he will have to be in the type of shape that Sarao knows all too well. Sarao has really come on and plays with a high motor and intelligence, so Dawson has his work cut out for him in more ways than one.
• WR Steven Mitchell: The redshirt freshman is an electrifying player when healthy. Recovering from tearing ligaments in his right knee during the summer of 2013, Mitchell says he is still on the mend but expects to be in ready to go in August. A hard worker, the former Bishop Alemany star’s return would be a major addition for the currently ultra-thin receiving corps.
• OG Jordan Simmons: With his size (6-foot-4, 335) and the pace of the offense, will the sophomore be able to come into camp in the type of shape needed for the no-huddle offense? Simmons, recovering from knee surgery, could very well be a key and the final piece of the offensive line. So far Simmons is still potential and an unproven talent.
• TE Randall Telfer: With Xavier Grimble leaving early for the NFL draft, it appeared that Telfer would step right in. The senior might still do so, but he has been held out of spring ball with a knee issue, and his absence has opened the way for an impressive March and April by junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. It would behoove Telfer to be in the best condition of his Trojans career to hold off Cope-Fitzpatrick and the incoming presence of true freshman talent Bryce Dixon.
• OG Aundrey Walker: There are those both within the team and onlookers who say that Walker, now a senior, has the talent. But does he have the motivation? The Ohio native has spent spring practice observing and going through “soft” drills, but one wonders how the 6-foot-6, 300-pound guard will cope with the physical and mental conditioning demands to play in Sarkisian’s never-take-a-breath offense.
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans returned to the practice field for the opening day of spring practice, and coach Steve Sarkisian said the impact of the up-tempo style was evident throughout the day.
“I really liked the energy and focus that our players and coaches showed,” Sarkisian said. “We were by no means perfect, and there is plenty to learn from, but it was just awesome to get on the field finally with these guys.
“It’s such a long process after you get hired, you need to fill the staff and finish off the recruiting season, so it was nice to walk through Goux Gate and onto the practice field. We ran 120 plays today, which was similar to what we ran on the first day at Washington when we installed the up-tempo system. I thought the players responded really well to that, we only had one time period where we didn’t meet our quota of plays.”
“It’s a much shorter walk to the field now,” Sarkisian said with a smile. “I didn’t really have time to think too much about anything. I left the locker room and went up the All-American walk, made a right and, boom, I was at the field.”
Once he got to the field, there was plenty to note about the performance of his team during the first practice session of the spring.
The Trojans have an opening at center, which will be critical to fill on the offensive line, and Max Tuerk was working with the first unit. Tuerk has started games for USC at left tackle, right tackle and left guard and he was projected to move to RT this year to take over for Kevin Graf. Instead, Tuerk will get a look at center, where he played in limited action last spring before being moved back to guard due to struggles with the center/quarterback exchange.
“Max is a very bright young man and talented,” Sarkisian said. “There is a lot of work to be done on the line and we will take a look at options to see how things develop. It was a good day though, he didn’t snap the ball over anyone’s head and there were no grounders.”
Notes: Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Josh Shaw (stress fracture) were among those who did not participate on the defensive side of the ball. ... On offense, Justin Davis, George Farmer and Steven Mitchell all received limited work in walk-through sessions as they return from injury. ... Max Browne made an early impression in the quarterback competition with a pair of deep passes, including a touchdown to George Katrib. … Chris Hawkins had an interception and a pass break-up. ... Among the guests in attendance were Adoree' Jackson, Damien Mama, Ricky Town, Rahshead Johnson and former USC tailback Justin Fargas.
Q&A with Max Tuerk
Q: When were you told you’d be taking reps at center?
A: I was told by Coach [Tim] Drevno a little bit before we started meetings, probably about a month ago.
Q: What are your thoughts on the move?
A: Whatever is best for the team. I’m a big team player. I’ve moved around a lot in the last two years, so moving to center is a new, awesome thing that I can do.
Q: Is it better to not have the quarterback under center?
A: Yeah, I like the shotgun better.
Q: Is this a permanent move to center?
A: Whatever the team needs. If they need me to play center, then yes I will play center.
Q: Is the comfort level more than a year ago when you tried to play center? How is it different?
A: Yes, definitely. I just have a lot more confidence. We are all picking up the offense pretty good. It’s good to learn the offense and then start at center. It’s a little harder to start at a different position and then re-learn the offense at center.
Q: Is there one position you like better than the other in terms of blocking people?
A: I like them all.
Q: How was the speed today with the no huddle?
A: It was a lot of plays. It was good though.
Q: Was it easier to make the move when you saw how Marcus Martin flourished at this spot the last few years?
A: Yeah I definitely learned from Marcus. Marcus was a great player. He’s competing in pro day tomorrow so I’m gonna go watch him. He’s an awesome guy, awesome leader, so anything I can do to be like he was.
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.
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.
There was something the highly coveted athlete had to do before making his way toward the postgame handshake line. Holmes eventually spotted former teammate Steven Mitchell, a freshman at USC, on the sideline. He smiled at him and put up two fingers. Mitchell returned the gesture, and the good friends later came together just like old times.
A week earlier, the 5-foot-11 Holmes added a scholarship offer from Oklahoma to his list, bringing his total to eight. USC, a school he strongly considered committing to when it offered in early May, has long been a favorite, especially with Mitchell in the fold.
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“We’ve already spoken to our recruits about the value of USC and what’s going on at USC,” Orgeron told reporters Sunday. “Recruiting has been one of our strengths here and it will continue to be one of our strengths. We expect to have a great recruiting class and continue to bring some of the best recruits across the country to USC.”
Orgeron’s pitch, despite his interim status and uncertainty surrounding the coaching situation, will be simple. He will touch on the education, prestige, opportunity and past glory.
“There’s a lot of great things about USC still here,” Orgeron said. “Nothing has changed about USC.”
In this week’s WeAreSC recruiting notebook, we touch on the impact Kiffin’s dismissal could have on USC recruiting and more:
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- As expected, USC outside linebacker commit D.J. Calhoun (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito) set up his first official visit to Arizona State for the Oct. 18 weekend when the Sun Devils host Washington. The four-star prospect intends to take all five visits, though his father, Derik, said he remains committed to USC. With good friend and high school teammate Adarius Pickett now committed to UCLA, the Trojans will have some work to do.
- While some uncertainty remains with Calhoun, add three-star offensive lineman Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) to the list of recruits who have been unfazed by the fuzzy USC coaching situation. Like fellow linemen commits Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) and Jordan Poland (La Jolla, Calif./Country Day School), Austin appears headed for Troy no matter how the 2013 season unravels. “I went to the game against Boston College. I loved the whole experience,” the 6-foot-5, 275-pound prospect said. Lobendahn, meanwhile, will be eligible to play his first game this season on Oct. 11 when La Habra travels to Fullerton (Calif.).
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Mike Reed, via @_micahsdaddy_: With rumors of linebacker commit D.J. Calhoun’s status, how long would fans have to wait before recruits decide on USC or look elsewhere?
WeAreSC: Another loss on the field could be the final straw. Still, if there were to be a coaching change, many recruits have indicated they would look at USC differently moving forward. A great hire would instill hope and perhaps provide a recruiting boost. A great season would do the trick as well. The good news for fans is that there is still plenty of time for both scenarios.
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The Trojans actually put up some good offensive numbers in 2012, including averages of 32 points and 432 yards per game. The struggles came in areas such as turnovers (34, fourth-worst in FBS), 3rd down conversions (34.2 percent, No. 105 in FBS) and red zone execution (74.5 percent). Kiffin has said he wants to return to a more physical approach in 2013 with a run game that can be relied on to close out games when needed.
The competition to replace Matt Barkley will be one of the most highly watched position battles in college football. Right now there are three players in the mix -- Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne -- although most speculation has it as a two-man race between third-year players Kessler and Wittek. Kessler has gained a lot of momentum since his performance in spring, when he didn’t throw an interception in five scrimmages, and has continued to look sharp in summer throwing sessions. Wittek has the experience of starting two games at the end of the 2012 season, but injuries and illness have limited him in spring and summer drills. Wittek is known for having the bigger arm while Kiffin has described Kessler as a “gamer”. Browne is a true freshman with loads of potential but the two guys ahead of him have a lot of time in the system, so it stands to reason that one of the veterans will land the job.
Kiffin has described this as the deepest and most talented running back group of his tenure as USC coach. We see no reason to argue, as there is a nice blend of experience, toughness, speed and ability. Silas Redd is the expected starter and showed last season that he can run hard and carry the primary load. Redd is coming off a knee injury in spring ball he is projected to return in time for fall camp. As for the rotation behind Redd, that is where things get interesting.
Tre Madden made a huge splash in spring of 2012 when he moved from linebacker and dazzled the coaches in practice before suffering a knee injury and missing the entire season. Madden will be given every opportunity to show that he is back to form. D.J. Morgan brings a speed element, but he also has been banged up and will need to show that he can stay healthy and hold on to the ball. Javorius Allen enters his third year and showed promise in spring. Then there are the two freshmen -- Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. Davis was one of the stars of spring, as he looked very good as a slasher. Isaac is a big back who will try to make an instant impact in camp with limited reps to go around.
The Trojans return a pair of fullbacks in Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner. Both players will be entering their second year of on-field action, and they are expected to play a bigger role.
It’s always a good situation when the top player at his position returns for another season. Marqise Lee won the Biletnikoff Award in 2012 as the best receiver in college football and has the ability to make a run at the Heisman Trophy this season along with securing his spot as the all-time leading receiver in USC history. Lee will also be the unquestioned leader of the Trojans and seems very comfortable in that role so far.
On the other side of Lee, Nelson Agholor appears set to show that he has similar big play ability. When Lee was sidelined for part of spring with a knee injury, Agholor was the most productive player for the Trojans. Victor Blackwell appears ready for a bigger role after a solid spring and true freshman Darreus Rogers was impressive in summer workouts. Fifth-year senior De'Von Flournoy offers an experienced option as well. Depth could be an issue for this group after season-ending knee injuries to George Farmer and Steven Mitchell.
The Trojans don’t have great depth at tight end, but the position group is still strong. Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble are basically co-starters, a talented pair of 6-foot-5, 250-pound options who can catch and block with equal skill. Don’t be surprised if they put up bigger numbers than they did last season. Both players suffered knee injuries in spring ball, which meant an extended audition for sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who passed with flying colors. Cope-Fitzpatrick is another big and athletic guy who is clearly ready for a bigger role.
This is the position group that will need to come together for the USC offense to achieve the stated goals of being more physical and controlling the line of scrimmage. There are five players with starting experience returning with Marcus Martin moving from guard to center as a replacement for Khaled Holmes. Martin showed a lot of promise when he was moved midway through spring ball.
On the right side of the line, Kevin Graf and John Martinez return for their third year of starting next to each other at tackle and guard. Both players are on the preseason Outland Trophy watch list. Max Tuerk follows up a true freshman season that saw him named an honorable mention all-conference selection at left tackle by moving to left guard. Aundrey Walker is once again at left tackle and might be the critical piece for the line. Walker has loads of physical potential but there have also been issues with work ethic and preparation, which led the coaches to consider putting Tuerk back at tackle in the spring. If Walker can match the effort from the rest of the group this could be a pretty good line.
For the first time in many seasons there are some solid reserve options including Jordan Simmons, Cyrus Hobbi, Chad Wheeler, Nico Falah and Khaliel Rodgers. Abe Markowitz might also be available as a sixth-year player. He practiced with the team in voluntary workouts all summer, but there has been no confirmation on his status.
-- Statistics were compiled by ESPN Stats and Information
A mid-year entrant who originally was a member of USC's recruiting class of 2012, he wound up sitting out the fall as a grayshirt before enrolling this past spring. In a very short time, Rogers has emerged as one of the most consistent performers during the team's volunteer passing sessions.
"It feels great to come out here and to work with great players like Marqise and Nelson," said Rogers, who compiled 64 receptions for 1,251 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at CIF Los Angeles City Section power Carson (Calif.). "I know that we need every single healthy body that we have out here contributing. We don't necessarily have the numbers, but we're coming out here competing like nothing I've seen before."
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Rogers possesses a skill set that is somewhat reminiscent of what former USC greats Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett brought to the table as big, physical receiving threats with off-the-charts athleticism. First showing flashes of his unique playmaking ability back in December, when he took part in two of the Trojans' bowl game workouts, Rogers continued to make strides this past spring.
Despite missing time because of hamstring and shoulder injuries, he came out of the March and April workouts with a newfound level of confidence.
"It was fast and physical -- a lot different than anything that I've ever experienced before," said Rogers, who is now back to 100 percent. "I was still used to what the speed of the game was like in high school, but I made the adjustment after a couple of weeks, and I really got in the flow of everything. Now it's starting to feel like it did in high school again, but now I'm faster, stronger and more explosive. I'm more comfortable, looser, and I'm able to just be myself now."
With Lee -- the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner -- and Agholor entrenched as the starting wide receiver duo, Rogers is currently involved in a fierce battle for the right to lay claim to the role as the team's No. 3 option, along with Blackwell, a star of the spring, and Flournoy, the veteran redshirt senior. And while both of his counterparts hold a leg up on him when it comes to experience and time spent within the program, with the job still completely up for grabs, Rogers certainly isn't backing down.
"The coaches have told me just to be ready, because it's open," Rogers said. "I'm just going to be working ... just coming out here and competing ... competing for No. 3. Nelson calls me on the weekends and tells me to work out, and I'm always there. Whatever it takes to play and to get on the field, I'm willing to do it."
It has been Agholor, as well as virtually every other member of the wide receiver unit, who has played an integral part in bringing Rogers along over the course of the last six months, and it obviously has paid off with big-time results.
"They all tell me what to do, what not to do ... they've all been there, and they've done it, and they've been a huge help," Rogers said. "I make a point of listening to them and to take it all in, because they're great guys and they have the experience. That really goes for all of them, but Nelson has probably played the biggest part, because he's closer to my age, but also a guy like Marqise -- he just keeps telling me, 'Be ready, be ready' -- so I'm taking it all in."
With a support group like that, on top of the promise that he already has shown, Rogers -- who has some pretty lofty aspirations of his own -- most definitely appears to have a very bright future.
"My goal is just to keep pushing ... to push and to be No. 1, really," Rogers said. "I know you've still got Marqise there, but the way that I look at it, to be the best, you have to compete against the best. And I'm here to compete."
For Victor Blackwell, a wide receiver heading into his redshirt sophomore season for the Trojans, that means realizing what’s at stake this fall -- a whole lot of opportunity waiting beyond the two projected starters.
The Trojans head into the season with Marqise Lee -- the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner -- and Nelson Agholor established as the starters. There is uncertainty beyond them, though. George Farmer was positioning himself for the No. 3 receiver role in spring ball before a knee injury that will cause him to miss the 2013 season. There was also a similar injury in recent weeks to incoming freshman Steven Mitchell, which means the Trojans will enter the season with five scholarship receivers.
Blackwell, the No. 10 receiver in the nation when he signed in 2011, has waited a long time for this opportunity. He was known as an explosive playmaker at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, where he played with current USC quarterback Max Wittek and averaged 19.5 yards per reception as a senior with 14 touchdowns.
Blackwell redshirted in his first year at USC and had one catch for nine yards as a redshirt freshman. He sat and watched while Robert Woods and Lee produced eye-popping stats, paying attention to how they did it.
“I just take notes on how Robert and Marqise act or how they handle certain situations,” Blackwell said. “I watch how they maintain their composure and just attack every day. They work hard and grind, every single day.”
It is that consistent level of performance which seems to be the next step for Blackwell in his development at USC. There have been flashes of big-play ability, but they haven’t taken place at a level that suits USC coach Lane Kiffin. In his end-of-spring news conference, Kiffin said the coaches have talked with Blackwell about the need for consistency, and Blackwell heard the message loud and clear.
“To me, consistency means someone who elevates his game, who comes out and dominates every day like Marqise, Robert and Nelson,” Blackwell said. “It means coming out every day and working to better your craft.”
Blackwell did have the benefit of one very good day this spring, putting up big numbers in the Trojans' spring game in the Coliseum. With seven catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, Blackwell showcased the skills that make him a potential game-breaker.
“It was great to be able to do that in the spring game,” Blackwell said. “I’m just thankful the coaches gave me the opportunity to make plays and show what I can do. I’m grateful for it but I want more, I need more, I’m hungry.”
That kind of hunger can build for a former prep All-American who finds himself waiting his turn in college, which has been trying at times for Blackwell.
“The hardest part about that process is to stay believing in yourself as the best receiver and telling yourself that you’re one of the tops at what you do,” Blackwell said. “Now that my opportunity is here I’m working hard this summer to go out and get it. I feel like that No. 3 spot is waiting for me and I need to go claim it. I’m getting faster and quicker and I need to work on my hands just so I’m more confident about catching the ball and being elusive with the ball in my hands. I’m willing to do whatever the coaches need from me to make the team better.”
Tons of talent at WR, not a lot of depth
The USC receiver corps was dealt a significant blow in the second throwing session of the summer when promising freshman Steven Mitchell went down with a torn ACL that will cause him to miss the entire 2013 season. Already without the services of George Farmer -- who suffered the same injury this spring -- the Trojans now have just five active scholarship wide receivers on the current roster.
Wittek returns to action, QB competition back on in full effect
The most notable player missing from the Trojans' early passing sessions was quarterback Max Wittek, who battled an apparent case of mononucleosis. The only member of the quarterback competition with starting experience returned to action this past Friday and looked sharp after shaking off some early rust.
The other two members of the quarterback competition -- fellow redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler and early entrant freshman Max Browne -- have performed solidly this offseason. Kessler, in particular, has picked up right where he left off in the spring, looking poised and in command while also throwing with fantastic accuracy. Meanwhile, Browne has continued to make tremendous strides, neither looking nor playing like a green first-year youngster.
With Wittek having returned to compete alongside Kessler and Browne, the race for the role of USC's starting quarterback is underway once again. And with all three players back out there pushing each other, there’s reason for optimism, regardless of who the eventual starter is.
Key contributors back from injury
While the loss of Mitchell marked the obvious low point of the workouts so far, the return of a number of players who missed all, or a portion, of the spring due to injury has been one of the great positives. Fullback Soma Vainuku, offensive lineman Chad Wheeler, tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr., cornerbacks Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour, as well as safeties Dion Bailey, Gerald Bowman and Su'a Cravens are just some of the players who have been spotted back in action. It’s provided a big shot in the arm for a team somewhat short in terms of numbers.
The most talked about return has been that of Bailey, who was out for the entire spring due to postseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. Moving over to free safety after spending the last two seasons as the team’s starting strongside linebacker, he’s looked comfortable, and the competition between he, Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III for the starting job is sure to be one of most closely watched position battles of the summer and fall.
Shaw still at safety
With Lane Kiffin underwhelmed by the production of the cornerback unit this past spring, the Trojans head coach noted on more than one occasion that the coaching staff was considering moving redshirt junior Josh Shaw back over from his strong safety spot to corner -- not a huge surprise considering he made seven starts at the position in 2012.
So far, however, there’s been no sign of the former Palmdale (Calif.) standout making that change. Lining up at strong safety during every passing session, he’s currently locked in a position battle with Cravens and Bowman. And while things could always change later in the summer or even during fall camp, it looks as if Shaw has settled in at safety at this time and that Kiffin will ride with what he currently has at cornerback -- collection that includes Anthony Brown, Ryan Dillard, Harris, Chris Hawkins, Ryan Henderson, Seymour and Devian Shelton.
Sightings of the newest freshmen
All six of the Trojans newest freshmen additions are now on campus, and they’ve slowly begun to make their presence felt in the workouts. It was Mitchell who made the biggest impact early on with his unique playmaking skills, giving an all-too-brief glimpse of the kind of talent that the USC offense will have at its disposal down the line. Inside linebacker Michael Hutchings has impressed as well. Figuring to play a key role as the potential backup at the MIKE linebacker spot to Hayes Pullard, he certainly looks the part of an imposing run-stopper with a nice combination of athleticism and instincts to boot. Outside linebacker Quinton Powell has already shown off some nice pass-rush skills during the 11-on-11 periods. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, running back Ty Isaac is as big as advertised while also showcasing a surprising burst for a player his size. Rounding out the group, offensive tackle Nico Falah and guard Khaliel Rodgers have also been quick to jump into the action, gaining valuable tutelage from veterans such as Kevin Graf and John Martinez.
Now that Michael Hutchings, Steven Mitchell, Quinton Powell, Ty Isaac, Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah have arrived, it means the entire Trojans 2013 signing class is in school and available for summer workouts if healthy.
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Lee the leader
But with Lee’s trusted quarterback Matt Barkley now a Philadelphia Eagle and his receiving counterpart Robert Woods a Buffalo Bill, he has a somewhat unfamiliar cast around him heading into the 2013 season. Fortunately for the Trojans, Lee clicked with the new passers right off the bat and looked better than ever this spring, even after missing several workouts with a minor knee injury. How he continues to mesh with those new faces this offseason certainly figures to play a crucial part in determining how he, and the entire offense, performs this season – particularly early on. Just as importantly, with veterans such as Barkley and Woods gone – not to mention Khaled Holmes and T.J. McDonald – Lee is now the irrefutable face of the program, and he’ll need to make his presence felt as the team’s unquestioned leader for the first time. It's a role he seemed to embrace this past March and April.
Agholor’s time to shine
The departure of Woods certainly dealt a blow to the USC offense, but it also opened the door for someone else to come in and take the No. 2 receiver job, and that’s precisely what Nelson Agholor did this spring, and in convincing fashion. Building off of a freshman campaign in which he made 19 receptions for 340 yards and two touchdowns, the Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep graduate made highlight play after highlight play on a daily basis, emerging as arguably the most consistent performer of the entire spring. A technician and big-play threat all rolled into one, with what he showed – and assuming he continues to develop through the summer and on into fall camp – there’s reason to believe that he’s on the verge of breaking out in 2013.
No. 3 WR job up for grabs
With Lee and Agholor firmly entrenched as the starters, everyone else has been left battling for the role as the team’s No. 3 receiver, and it’s still wide open at this point – particularly with George Farmer sidelined for the season with a torn ACL. It’s a fierce competition featuring a host of talented candidates ready to make a significant impact for the first time as Trojans, and it figures to heat up even more once fall camp begins in August.
Toward the end of the spring, Victor Blackwell seemed to make the biggest statement with his play. Emerging as a reliable pass-catcher with speed to boot, he caught seven passes for 155 yards and one touchdown in the spring game. When the post-spring depth chart was released, however, Blackwell found himself sitting behind promising early-entrant freshman Darreus Rogers. Extremely physical and athletic, Rogers has through-the-roof potential, and the coaches are obviously very interested to see how he comes along over the next few months. Veteran redshirt senior De’Von Flournoy was another solid, all-around option who showed well. And then there’s Steven Mitchell, an incoming freshman out of Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany. Already making a splash in the team’s offseason passing sessions, he has game-breaking ability. He could end up factoring into the discussion here more than people might have previously expected.
Low on depth, high on talent at tight end
With the loss of Christian Thomas to medical retirement on top of the uncertain status of Junior Pomee because of some off the field problems, the Trojans currently find themselves with just three tight ends on scholarship. Fortunately for Lane Kiffin and Co., all three of those players are extremely skilled. Garnering the lion’s share of the attention has been redshirt juniors Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, and justifiably so. Two seasoned players who have split the bulk of the reps at the position for the past two years, they’re both phenomenal athletes with standout receiving skills. Throw in the emergence of sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick this spring and the USC offense now has a formidable trio of tight ends to call upon. The big question is, will it? As a group, the tight ends made just 43 receptions in 2012 – a number that seems glaringly low when you consider the talent at the position. The ball did seem to head their way with greater frequency this spring, particularly in the final scrimmage, when Cope-Fitzpatrick collected six grabs. Whether or not that trend continues into the fall remains to be seen.
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.
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