USC Trojans: De'Von Flournoy
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.
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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.
RB Justin Davis (6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Fr.)
It’s not as if Davis, an early entrant who enrolled at USC just this past January, arrived on campus without plenty of accolades. But with veterans such as Silas Redd already entrenched at tailback, he didn’t figure to make an overly significant immediate impact. Taking advantage of the increased opportunity that came with injuries to both Redd and D.J. Morgan, the Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln product was arguably the top tailback of the spring. Showcasing a fundamentally sound north-south running style with plenty of physicality, USC head coach Lane Kiffin has stated that the young freshman has the ability to start right off the bat this fall, and listed him along with Redd and Madden atop the post-spring depth chart Monday.
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“There are some good parts about it,” said Kiffin in looking at the pros and cons of the physical way the team has practiced this spring. “I think that our guys that are still healthy are playing more physical than they were at the end of last year, and our front seven on defense is better because of it. But at the same time, obviously, we have a lot of players out.”
“It’s been kind of the theme of the spring -- very physical -- as we come down to one practice left here,” Kiffin said. “I think you’ll still see the stars out there making plays. We’re just going to have to be creative because we’re not going to be able to go at the same speed in between series, and obviously we can’t have two teams with only one tight end, and all of our formations use a tight end, so we’ll figure it out -- probably just a little more time in between [each] series.”
Agholor and Lee at corner?
“We really wanted to focus on keeping guys staying up today and that usually happens when we don’t go full pads,” Kiffin said. “I thought we were still able to have a physical practice.”
- From deep in his own end, Cody Kessler stood in the pocket against strong pressure and fired late to Nelson Agholor for 12 yards and a first down.
- Max Wittek had his chance with the ball near his goal line and he found Victor Blackwell with a quick strike, and Blackwell put on the jets to race for a long touchdown despite valiant pursuit from Leon McQuay III.
- Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick made a nice catch of a low-thrown ball across the middle from Wittek.
- McQuay popped the ball loose from Cope-Fitzpatrick after a short catch.
One of the most fiery drills of any practice is when the ball is placed inside the 5-yard line and the offense takes its shots at the end zone.
"The story of the day was the passing game and the offense in general,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “All three quarterbacks played great and it was obviously great to have Marqise back.”
Wittek got the start with the first unit and quickly hit De'Von Flournoy with a nice touch pass over Anthony Brown for 25 yards. On another drive he completed a 40-yard pass to Lee and then closed out the drive with a 20-yard scoring pass to Nelson Agholor. Wittek also had a 4-yard touchdown to Lee with a back shoulder throw against coverage from Brown. Wittek ended the day completing 14 of 17 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
Lee wasted no time in showing everybody that he is officially back. In the early part of the scrimmage he caught a 60-yard touchdown on a go route from Cody Kessler. Later in the day he caught a bubble pass and put a juke move on Chris Hawkins to set up a 20-yard gain. Simply put, Lee looked every bit the reigning Biletnikoff winner with 10 catches for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Those weren’t the only standouts for the offense, though.
Justin Davis continues to impress, as he had 17 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. Davis showed some power on a short run, overpowering Lamar Dawson. He also read a good block from Kevin Graf to get a first down on a 3rd-and-short. His prettiest run came near the end of the scrimmagewith the ball at the 30. Davis broke up the middle and was headed for the end zone before Josh Shaw tracked him down at the 3-yard line. Davis punched it in from there two plays later.
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The news was more dire for Farmer after Kiffin confirmed the earlier media reports of a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, which will force him to miss the 2013 season. For Cravens, he has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery Friday. The injury is the same as the one suffered by Silas Redd. Cravens is expected to miss 4-6 weeks and will be back in plenty of time for fall camp.
The Trojans entered the Thursday practice session with 20 players out of action because of injury and two more left practice – Torin Harris and Cyrus Hobbi.
“I don’t see any way we could practice like this in the fall. We wouldn’t be able to play a game,” Kiffin said. “Of the 22 guys who ended up being out today, 18 of them are scholarship players. With the roster reductions we already have we would not be able to give up that many players. We will start fall camp practicing this way, but I don’t think we will end fall camp this way.”
There was some good news on the injury front as Marqise Lee returned, albeit in a limited role, after missing two-and-a-half weeks with a knee injury. Lee seemed to be running fine with no major issues but he was held out of contact team drills. Kevon Seymour and Jordan Simmons also returned to action.
“Marqise was back, which was obviously good to see,” Kiffin said. “He basically took part in the first hour of practice and we’ll add to him as we go.”
George Uko was out today and J.R. Tavai took his spot with the first unit at defensive end. During the final team drill, Aundrey Walker was out and Max Tuerk had moved to center with Hobbi out, so the first unit left side of the line was walk-on Nathan Guertler at tackle and Giovanni Di Poalo at guard.
With Farmer out, that means opportunities for players such as Victor Blackwell and De’Von Flournoy along with first-year players Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Kiffin also made sure to note the high level of play from Nelson Agholor this spring when discussing the receiver group.
USC fans who had watched Farmer fight through injuries during his first two years on campus had been encouraged when he got off to a strong start in spring ball. There was a lot of anticipation to finally see the former No. 1-ranked receiver recruit in action, and Farmer made it clear that his improved health was a big reason for his better play. Even USC coach Lane Kiffin had commented about how Farmer was playing well and creating a role for himself in the offense.
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“It was a very physical practice,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I liked the defensive mentality at the end in the goal-line drill. It’s been a very competitive spring. It reminds me of the spring when we first got here. We need that to establish a competitive mindset.”
As Kiffin mentioned, the Trojans ended practice with a goal-line drill that got started with Hayes Pullard stuffing a run up the middle by Buck Allen. Justin Davis tried to slash into the end zone, but J.R. Tavai came across the line and knocked the ball out as he was bringing Davis to the ground, although Randall Telfer recovered for the offense. Davis did punch in a score at the end for the offense. There was also a little skirmish between a few offensive and defensive players after one play.
“It’s always a tough line between physical play and getting penalties with the goal-line drill,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin speaks with Enfield
Kiffin said he talked with new USC basketball coach Andy Enfield on Sunday night, prior to the announcement that Enfield had taken the job.
“I talked to him about the program and about working with Pat (Haden) and Max (Nikias),” Kiffin said. “I think it’s a great hire. He brings an exciting style of play and kids will want to play in that style. He’s also a guy who understands the academic side of being at a private school.”
Brady on campus
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady worked out on the USC campus Tuesday, throwing passes to his new receiver, Danny Amendola. Kiffin said it is common for NFL quarterbacks to use the USC facilities in the offseason, mentioning Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Matt Cassel as players who had thrown recently on the USC field.
* Anthony Brown knocked away a pass at the sideline intended for Nelson Agholor. Brown has put together a very solid spring while consistently in the lineup as one of the starting corners.
* A few plays later, however, Brown went for a pick on a rope thrown over the middle by Max Wittek and missed, allowing De’Von Flournoy to go for a long gain. Flournoy also had a touchdown later in the drill when he caught a pass from Max Browne and split the safeties with his speed.
* Victor Blackwell caught a short pass and got loose from Torin Harris with a nice shake move.
* Kevin Greene had a sack on Cody Kessler.
* Ryan Henderson had a pick off Kessler, who was trying to get the ball to Blackwell.
* George Uko had a nice play to move along the line of scrimmage in pursuit of Davis and hold him to no gain.
* Davis provided yet another dazzling touchdown run, this one a 45-yarder behind a block from Kevin Graf.
* Allen had a 20-yard gain down the left sideline thanks to Jahleel Pinner, who got one block at the line and then hustled down field to get another block.
* Browne hooked up on a 25-yard pass to walk-on Robby Kolanz on the right sideline.
Notables in attendance
Nico Falah, Steven Mitchell, Adoree’ Jackson, Dwight Williams, Chase Blakley
“The offense did a lot better today,” Kiffin said. “It was good to see them bounce back that way after what happened on Tuesday. They came out today with a much better mindset.”
It was Davis who got things going with a pair of long touchdown runs in a team drill. The smooth freshman, who has provided multiple promising moments in his brief time at USC, took both runs to the left side and showed a combination of speed and moves to get to the end zone.
Morgan followed in the next drill with a 10-yard touchdown run, showing a quick burst through the line. A few plays later, Morgan took a handoff and went down in a pile after a short gain. When he came up, he was limping a little and did not return.
Allen took his turn as the lead runner at the end of the day when the Trojans were in goal-line situations. The chatter between the offense and defense had reached a crescendo as time was running out in practice and both sides were eager for victory. With the ball at the five-yard line, Allen was able to punch in two touchdowns, including the final play of the day to signal a win for the offense. Davis also had a short touchdown run in the goal-line drill.
“I thought D.J. Morgan was having a very good day before he went down,” Kiffin said. “Justin Davis had a great day.”
It was also a good day at the quarterback spot, Max Wittek looked much better than he did on Tuesday, while Max Browne had his best practice as a Trojan.
Wittek got things going early with a deep touchdown pass to De’Von Flournoy against solid coverage from Ryan Henderson.
In a red-zone drill, Browne hit Nelson Agholor as Torin Harris went for the ball and missed, so Agholor was able to go in for the 20-yard score. Browne also hit a pair of short touchdowns to Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. The highlight throw of the day for Browne came when he hit Farmer on a 55-yard completion. It was yet another sign of the accurate touch that Browne has shown on the deep ball so far, and of the fact that Farmer is continuing to make plays as well.
“George has stayed healthy and he’s doing well,” Kiffin said. “We need him to make the hard plays, to be physical, and he’s doing that. It’s been great to see.”
O-line adjusting to coaching changes
One of the primary areas of emphasis for the Trojans this year will be to get more physical, and that starts with the line. To that end, Kiffin has put two coaches on the offensive line, adding Mike Summers and keeping James Cregg, who had been the line coach for the past three years, as his assistant. There was some curiosity as to how the arrangement would work but, through the first three weeks, Kiffin is pleased with what he sees.
“Mike Summers has done a really good job of coming in and capturing the group,” Kiffin said. “It’s worked out like we had hoped with the two of them in combination, that’s why we put two coaches at such an important position.”
Xavier Grimble will miss the remainder of spring with a chest fracture. There was no update on Morgan after practice. Jordan Simmons missed practice after getting sick earlier in the afternoon.
* Ryan Henderson had multiple solid tackles on the day coming up from his corner position. Two of them were on Agholor, including one at the end of the day when emotions were high and his big hit brought a huge roar from the defensive sideline.
* Anthony Brown also had a solid tackle for no gain from the corner spot.
* Josh Shaw read a screen pass from Cody Kessler to Agholor and he was able to bat the ball down.
* J.R. Tavai recorded a sack of Browne.
* Leonard Williams tracked Davis along the line of scrimmage for no gain.
Notables in attendance
Naijiel Hale, David Sills, Steven Mitchell, Nico Falah and several members of the Chaminade Eagles program.
“It was a slow adjustment at first for me because things are so different at this level. There were little things I could get away with in high school, some bad habits, but you need to pay attention to those techniques here. I’m getting those little things down right now. The good thing is that I get a first chance to learn everything now in spring and then I will get another camp in the fall. That will really help me learn the playbook. I’m not sure about redshirting, I’ll just work hard every day and see what happens.” -- Justin Davis
“It was great to see the defense come out with such a physical mindset and execute so well,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “The defensive coaches have done a good job of getting them ready through the first week. I thought things were really good up front, Hayes Pullard was strong in the middle, and Lamar Dawson was the MVP of the day because he was so aggressive against the run.”
Dawson led the way with six tackles, including two tackles for loss, while Morgan Breslin and Su’a Cravens each added four tackles. All four of Breslin’s tackles went for a loss, while Pullard added two tackles for loss. The defense also had five sacks.
The offense was without quarterback Max Wittek and wide receiver Marqise Lee, both of whom were held out of the scrimmage after suffering knee injuries during the drills session before the scrimmage. Wittek's knee was rolled up on while he held during a place-kicking drill, and Lee came down hard after making a catch in the end zone. Both stayed on the sideline for the rest of the day -- Wittek had an ice pack on his knee -- and Kiffin said they will get checked out by team doctors.
The offense struggled with multiple fumbles during the quarterback-center exchange as new center Max Tuerk continues to adjust to his new position.