USC Trojans: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick

After a break in action, USC returns to Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday to pick up where it left off after a promising first week of spring drills under Steve Sarkisian.

Much was revealed during those initial three workouts, and here are three key things to keep an eye on as the Trojans go through the remaining practice schedule in March and April.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has adjusted well to USC's uptempo offense this spring.
The continued development of the players in the new systems

Week 1 was all about an uptempo pace as the players got their feet wet in new offensive and defensive schemes at a frenetic pace. To their credit, they appeared to adapt to it all in lightning-quick fashion.

And so, the big question now is just how much further can they come over the course of the next four weeks?

On offense, the progression of the passing game should be particularly interesting to watch. Both Cody Kessler and Max Browne performed solidly in Sarkisian’s hurry-up, shotgun-based offense. As they continue to grow at ease in the new system and develop more chemistry with their receivers, there’s reason to believe the aerial attack has the potential to really take off.

On the other side of the ball, Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense has been a hit so far, due in large part to some outstanding play in the trenches. The front seven shined throughout the first week, even with Leonard Williams standing on the sideline due to injury. With unique size on the interior and hulking contributors like Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon combined with exciting athletes on the outside, this unit should get better and better this spring.

In the secondary, even with Josh Shaw out of action, Keith Heyward’s group has been making some impressive plays in coverage -- something they struggled to do under the prior regime. Will that trend continue? We’ll soon find out.

Competition, competition, competition

When Sarkisian took the reins in early December, one thing he stressed was that virtually every position would be up for grabs. He wanted to create an atmosphere of competition. And with one week of practice in the books, it’s safe to say that is precisely what's happened.

A number of tightly contested position battles have taken shape, none garnering more attention than the one at quarterback between Browne, Kessler and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene. With some added bulk to his frame and an increased level of confidence, Browne really opened eyes with his play in Week 1, but that doesn’t mean Kessler backed down an inch. A vocal leader of the team, Kessler did a great job of directing the offense down the field with frequent success. He had the poise and command you’d expect from a veteran with 14 starts under his belt. Greene has displayed flashes at times, although he’s taken noticeably fewer snaps than his counterparts, both of whom appear to have a sizeable lead on him in this race.

On defense, the competitions for the two spots on the edge of the line have been the highlight so far. Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin are duking it out at SAM linebacker, with Scott Starr and J.R. Tavai battling at rush end. In Week 1, it was Powell and Starr running exclusively with the No. 1 unit, but, really, all four contenders have stood out at times.

Some previously hidden players have also begun to emerge as they’ve received somewhat of a golden opportunity to show what they can do in the new schemes. Powell and Starr are two such examples, as are tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, guard Khaliel Rodgers, tackle Nathan Guertler, cornerback Chris Hawkins and defensive end Simmons.

How physical will Sarkisian allow it to get?

With a new staff in place and a depleted roster (NCAA sanctions) made even more so because of a number of injuries, Sarkisian indicated when he took over at USC that he might not push the envelope too much when it came to live hitting this spring. That was certainly the case in the first week. But as the team progresses through the schedule this month and next, will we see the pads popping with greater frequency at any point?

There are certainly some added benefits that could come with more physical workouts, but there are drawbacks as well. Finding the perfect combination isn’t as easy as it might sound. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

Stay away from full-contact drills completely and you risk fielding a defense that could get pushed around and has tackling issues. That was the case in 2012.

But USC still lacks depth, and if you allow more hitting, you also run the risk of more players getting injured. That happened in 2013.

It’s a decision that could ultimately play a major role in shaping the identity of the team down the line, so it will be interesting to see which way Sarkisian goes here.
With spring practice set to start back up again for USC next week, here’s a look at 10 players who entered the March and April workouts as somewhat hidden commodities but who showed in the first week of spring practice that they just might have the potential to take on a larger role for the Trojans in 2014.

TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-foot-4, 255 pounds, junior): With Xavier Grimble off to the NFL draft and Randall Telfer currently sidelined by injury, Cope-Fitzpatrick is the lone active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans this spring, and he’s made the most of what has been a golden opportunity to demonstrate what he’s capable of doing in USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new up-tempo, tight end-friendly offense. Cope-Fitzpatrick displayed sure hands and a high level of athleticism in the first week, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction.

OLB Quinton Powell (6-2, 220, sophomore): Powell was one of the more exciting practice players to watch last fall as a reserve Will linebacker, and now that he’s made the move back outside -- where he played in high school -- to Sam linebacker, he looks to have found the perfect spot to showcase his talents. Long, athletic and extremely active, he was equally as strong coming off the edge as he was in pass coverage while running with the No. 1 defensive group.

[+] EnlargeNathan Guertler
AP Photo / Chris BernacchiFormer walk-on Nathan Guertler earned a scholarship and is in the mix on the offensive line.
Rush end/OLB Scott Starr (6-2, 220, redshirt sophomore): Hampered by injuries early in his career, Starr is now healthy and it’s made a world of difference. Lining up with the starting group at rush end in Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense, he’s obviously already gained a level of confidence from the new coaching staff with his ability as a pass rusher and as a disruptive force, in general, near the line of scrimmage.

CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, redshirt freshman): There’s little denial the Trojans need to shore up the cornerback spots heading into the 2014 season, and with Josh Shaw sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot, Hawkins got plenty of work during the first three workouts of spring. He was solid, for the most part. After redshirting as a freshman last fall, he looks to be playing with a greater level of confidence than he did just a few months ago. His interception of a Cody Kessler pass on the first day of practice was one of the highlights of the week.

DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, redshirt junior): Forced to sit out the 2013 season after transferring to USC from Texas Tech, Simmons has stepped into the starting lineup this spring at defensive end and looks primed to make an instant impact as part of what should be an outstanding defensive line. Possessing a huge frame to go along with a strong motor, he already has the veteran experience that comes with having started 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012.

OL Nathan Guertler (6-5, 280, redshirt senior): Originally arriving at USC as a walk-on in 2010, Guertler was recently awarded a scholarship by the new coaching staff, and it’s safe to say it’s an honor he more than deserves. A tireless worker who made the switch to tight end last season when the team had low numbers at the position, he’s now getting an extensive look with the first team at right tackle. And while it certainly isn’t a foregone conclusion that he’ll remain there in the fall, he’s shown enough to ensure that he’s worthy of being in the discussion.

OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, redshirt freshman): Figured by many to be a prime contender for the open center spot going into the spring, Rodgers instead ran with the 1s at right guard and looked to be at home. As an aggressive blocker who possesses a mean streak on the field, he would appear to be a perfect fit as part of an offensive line unit that, under Tim Drevno, has placed an emphasis on being physical. Figuring to face plenty of additional competition in the fall in the form of freshmen Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, the experience Rodgers is gaining now could give him a leg up heading into fall camp.

DL Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 300, redshirt freshman): Fairly raw when he first arrived on campus a little more than a year ago, Bigelow looks to have made strides in terms of where he is physically, as well as mentally, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him factor heavily into the defensive line rotation in 2014. With players such as Leonard Williams and Greg Townsend Jr. sidelined, Bigelow worked with the first team at one of the interior defensive end spots for a majority of the first week of practice.

S Gerald Bowman (5-11, 195, redshirt senior): Back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss most of the 2013 season, Bowman has re-emerged this spring as one of only three available scholarship safeties. With the ability to play both safety spots, he served an important role throughout the first three practices as a backup and a key contributor in nickel situations.

OL Giovanni Di Poalo (6-4, 275, redshirt senior): For Di Poalo, 2014 marks his last shot to make a real impact for the Trojans, and to his credit it looks like he’s doing everything he can to try to make that happen. Taking advantage of the fresh start he’s gained with a new staff in place, in addition to the fact that USC simply doesn’t have a lot of healthy bodies ready to go along the offensive line right now, he took reps exclusively with the No. 1 unit at left guard last week. Things will get a whole lot more interesting in fall camp when those highly touted freshmen arrive, but Di Poalo appears to be making a statement that he won’t back down easily.
From coast to coast, at every FBS program across the country, spring football represents a time when those lesser-known performers who have waited in the wings receive the chance to emerge from the shadows.

And at USC, where a new coaching staff with fresh ideas and philosophies has created an atmosphere where every team member is starting out with a clean slate, perhaps no under-the-radar player has made a more pronounced statement with his play this spring -- at least through the first three workouts -- than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.

Showcasing sure hands and impressive athleticism to go along with a 6-foot-4 and 245-pound frame, Cope-Fitzpatrick -- who made just three receptions in his initial two seasons on campus -- seemed to reel in almost everything thrown in his direction during the first week of drills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Cope-Fitzpatrick
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is excited about getting opportunities in the new USC offense.
“I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and having a good spring,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian following a particularly strong showing by Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday. “He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays, and he’s doing it.”

That much is certain. With Xavier Grimble and his 69 career catches now off to the NFL draft and the Trojans’ other talented 2013 co-starter at tight end, Randall Telfer, still being held out of action because of injury, Sarkisian has had no other choice but to rely on Cope-Fitzpatrick, and to the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout's credit, he’s answered the call.

“I feel a lot more focused than before,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said after practice Saturday. “Now that I’m going to be a junior, an upperclassman, I feel like I have the chance to position myself into a starting role. So, I’m really trying to push myself to fill that role and to fill the need of the team, and to just kind of put my head down and work.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick has also seen his responsibilities skyrocket as a direct result of the Trojans’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense, which places an emphasis on making use of the tight end as weapon in the passing game -- something Sarkisian did with great success at Washington with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 2013 John Mackey Award winner.

For Cope-Fitzpatrick, the switch from former coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, which didn’t utilize the tight end as a receiving threat on a consistent basis, to Sarkisian’s offense was welcomed, to say the least.

In fact, the only negative for Cope-Fitzpatrick so far is that Grimble -- who, along with Telfer, played an important role as a mentor throughout the last two years -- isn’t around to reap the rewards.

“I’m upset my big brother, Xavier, isn’t back,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I really wish that he came back so all three of us could enjoy the fruits of this new system. It’s very tight end-friendly. I’m excited, and I think the tight ends are going to do really big things.”

Come fall camp, the Trojans will also insert highly touted Class of 2014 signee Bryce Dixon into the mix, adding another exciting piece to a group that, in addition to Cope-Fitzpatrick and Telfer, will also feature walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Teddy Baker and Connor Spears.

New tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo has already made a positive impression on Cope-Fitzpatrick. A former Huskies quarterback who also played for the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets before embarking on his coaching career, Tuiasosopo commands a special level of respect. Cope-Fitzpatrick was already very familiar with Tuiasosopo before he landed at USC as an assistant.

“He’s great. I definitely see a lot of Raider in him, and being a Raiders fan, I’ve always liked that attitude growing up,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “He’s just a positive guy, and he pushes me and really wants me to succeed. It’s great to have that kind of support. I’m really learning a lot from him, especially when it comes to the complexities of the offense. He has a quarterback’s mind, so he’s really helping me with reading defenses.”

With the promise that Cope-Fitzpatrick has shown this month, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to his future. But with only three practice sessions in the books this spring, he’s not about to get ahead of himself, and he freely admits that he still has much to learn and a whole lot more to prove as he makes a bid to take on an expanded role in the USC offense in 2014.

“I just want to continue to develop,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “One thing that I really want to work on is just getting the offense down, just really being on top of stuff so I can play that much faster. And then once I learn the offense, I can start critiquing the little things. But right now, it’s just about taking baby steps.”

Offense shines on Day 2

March, 13, 2014
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After the defense stood out in the team’s first practice session under Steve Sarkisian on Tuesday, the new USC head coach said the offense stole the show on Day 2 of the Trojans’ spring practice.

“I thought the offense created some explosive plays in the second practice which weren’t there in the first practice,” Sarkisian said. “And so, like I’m used to on this practice field, one side of the ball can get the better of the other on one day, and then you come back the next practice and the other side can get the better of them. I thought the defense had a great Tuesday [and] I thought the offense came out and created some explosive plays today. It was kind of their turn.”

In particular, it was the play of quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Browne -- who are entrenched in a position battle -- that really caught the eye of Sarkisian. Directing the team’s brand new uptempo, shotgun-based offense, both signal callers split the bulk of snaps during the 7-on-7 and team periods, with each contender completing deep passes downfield on a number of occasions.

“I thought they played well today,” Sarkisian said. “I think that they’re starting to recognize the speed coming out of Tuesday’s practice of how fast things go, and how quickly they have to recognize fronts and coverages, and making those quick decisions -- similar to how a point guard would have to make quick decisions on a basketball court. And I thought both Cody and Max were much better at that today.”

And even though the third member of the quarterback competition, early entry freshman Jalen Greene, didn’t see as much action as his counterparts, he came up with a big play of his own when he completed a 35-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Darreus Rogers, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Sarkisian.

“[He took] a little less reps, but to Jalen’s credit he goes in and throws a touchdown pass,” Sarkisian said. “He’ll get plenty of reps. We’ve got 13 more [practices] to go, so he’ll get his time. We just felt like it was important to get Cody and Max some extended reps in today’s practice.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick makes a big impression

No player benefitted more from the performance of the quarterbacks than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. With Randall Telfer sidelined due to injury, the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout is currently the only active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans. To his credit, he’s taken advantage of the increased opportunity this spring, particularly on Thursday.

Showcasing soft hands, Cope-Fitzpatrick hauled in a number of passes all over the field, and he was especially in sync with Kessler. With Sarkisian having shown at Washington that he isn’t afraid to use the tight end as a major weapon in his offense, he was encouraged by what he saw from Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday.

“In this system we love to utilize the tight end, and a lot of time multiple tight ends,” Sarkisian said. “I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and have a good spring. I thought he was really attentive and locked in on Tuesday, and then he got opportunities today to make plays down the field, and he made them. I think that’s what he’s capable of. He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays and he’s doing it.”

Notes and quotes

• Following practice defensive back Josh Shaw, who is still sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and is wearing a boot, said that he will line up at cornerback in 2014.

J.R. Tavai saw extensive time with the first-team defense at defensive end on Thursday, where Kenny Bigelow lined up for the majority of Tuesday’s practice. Tavai had run primarily with the second unit on the outside at rush end on Tuesday.

• Among those in attendance were Class of 2014 signees Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama, Chris Brown and Ajene Harris, Class of 2015 defensive lineman Rasheem Green and USC and NFL greats Keyshawn Johnson and Ronnie Lott.

• The next practice is on Saturday, but the team will be in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets, and it will not be in a scrimmage setting as some might have assumed. In fact, Sarkisian said that he isn’t sure that the team will hold any scrimmages in the traditional sense this spring.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to come out and have a two-hour scrimmage. I don’t know if we benefit from that,” he said. “But there will be portions of our practice that will be live, that will be scrimmage oriented, and I think that will allow us to tackle, it will allow us to cut block, it will allow us to learn from those things, but not be so overly fatigued to where guys can start getting injured.”

Spring position breakdowns: TE

February, 28, 2014
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Terrence Miller was listed on the team's depth chart as a tight end, but he wasn't a traditional tight end. After catching 40 passes for 467 yards in 2013, he's out of eligibility. Former quarterback Josh Kern backed up Miller and is one of four tight ends listed on the roster.

Arizona State: Chris Coyle (29 catches, 423 yards, 4 TD) is a big loss for the Sun Devils and his primary backup, Darwin Rogers, also is out of eligibility. De'Marieya Nelson and Marcus Washington are the most experienced of the four tight ends on the roster, which will grow by one with the addition of recent signee Brendan Landman. Landman is expected to redshirt after playing left tackle during his senior year in high school.

California: There is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin is atop the depth chart after catching nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin played minimally as a freshman, but his role is set to increase. Three other tight ends are on the roster, including Connor Center, who did not play football in high school.

[+] EnlargePharaoh Brown
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOregon's Pharoah Brown made 10 catches, two for touchdowns, in 2013.
Oregon: The Ducks have a trio of players who gained significant experience in 2013 in Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Brown started five games, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State. Koa Ka'ai and Davaysia Hagger will provide depth, but they don't appear on track to make much of an impact on the depth chart.

Oregon State: With Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith both returning, the Beavers arguably have the best tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Kellen Clute (19 catches, 159 yards) also contributed to the passing game and Tyler Perry, who will be a fifth-year senior, is an important run-blocker.

Stanford: A one-time strength of the Cardinal, tight ends weren't a significant factor in Stanford's offense in 2013, but the staff is hopeful that an influx of new players will change that. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he'll compete for playing time immediately. Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper -- all well-regarded tight end recruits -- are coming off redshirts and will compete with Charlie Hopkins, who started three games last season.

UCLA: There is no traditional tight end at UCLA, but Y receiver Thomas Duarte, who was recruited as a tight end, is coming off an exceptional freshman season. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Orange County native appeared in all 13 games and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

USC: Losing Xavier Grimble early to the NFL is a blow and just two other scholarship tight ends remain from last season: Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. One of the nation's top tight ends, Bryce Dixon, signed with USC, but he wasn't among the group of four early enrollees.

Utah: The Utes were the only school in the country to send two tight ends -- Jake Murphy and Anthony Denham -- to the NFL combine, though Utah listed Denham at receiver. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup on the final depth chart, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins' departure for the NFL was expected, and how the Huskies replace him will be an interesting process. Clearly, there's not a one-man solution for what they'll lose with Seferian-Jenkins, but the combination that the returning players provide is a nice mix of different talents. Michael Hartvigson and Josh Perkins have the most experience at tight end, but they should receive a push from Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu. Daniels, a highly-regarded receiver recruit who switched to tight end, was a special-teams standout in 2013 as a freshman, while Ajamu redshirted.

Washington State: Washington State didn't list any tight ends on the roster last season, but early enrollee Nick Begg will start his career listed there. The long-term plan for Begg is likely elsewhere.

Previous positions
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line

Roundtable: USC spring storylines

February, 19, 2014
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WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

What storyline will you be most interested to follow in spring ball?

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonIt should be interesting to see how the USC defense evolves this spring with Justin Wilcox calling the shots.
Garry Paskwietz: I’ll be watching to see how the defense begins to take shape under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. One of the things that worked so well for the Trojans last season was the way the USC defensive personnel fit so smoothly within the 5-2 scheme utilized by former coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Wilcox says he wants to get a look at the USC players on the field to see how their skills fit before he commits to a particular scheme, so it could be a very fluid situation in spring. How does the rotation look along the line, especially with the need to replace George Uko? Who steps up to fill the edge-rush spots at outside linebacker? Will Su’a Cravens be used in much the same way Shaq Thompson was at Washington? These and many other questions will begin to get answered when the Trojans hit the field next month.

Johnny Curren: I’m most interested to see how the new up-tempo offense that USC coach Steve Sarkisian plans to install comes along, and how the current Trojans players adapt to playing in it. Sarkisian has stated before that although fast-paced, it will still essentially be a pro-style, run-first offense, but there are still bound to be several significant differences from USC offenses of the past, and there are plenty of questions heading into the spring that won’t begin to be answered until the team hits the practice field. Will one of the quarterbacks -- Cody Kessler, Max Browne or Jalen Greene -- prove to be particularly adept at directing the new attack? Will the quarterbacks be asked to run more? Will more of an emphasis be placed on throwing to the tight end, as Sarkisian did at Washington, and will Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick thrive in the potentially expanded role? Will we see more wideouts involved? Will the fullback really be utilized? Most importantly, though, will it all result in an offense that is more explosive, and in the end, more productive? In less than a month we’ll start to find out.

Greg Katz: The O-line gets top billing here, especially the center position, which is key with the early departure of All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin to the NFL draft. The candidates or position changes as it pertains to center could be fascinating because it could lead to a domino effect. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, who should be a prime candidate for either center or guard. Another sidebar to the offensive line, of course, is the arrival of new coach Tim Drevno from the San Francisco 49ers. Watching his readjustment to college players and what’s available to him should be worth watching at spring practice.

As for an overall view, with a new system and terminology, the logical advantage for returners such as left tackle Chad Wheeler and right tackle Max Tuerk is starting experience. Tuerk, however, is one to keep an eye on to see if he stays at right tackle and is not moved to center. Rehabilitation for guards Jordan Simmons and Aundrey Walker make spring progress tough, but it should make for interesting competition to see how the available bodies fit into Sark’s “puzzle pieces.” What you see in the spring might not be the offensive line you see in the first game against Fresno State.
video
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.

[+] EnlargeRichardson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsColorado will have a hard time replacing the explosive plays that Paul Richardson provided.
Leaving: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado

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.

2013 review: USC offense 

December, 24, 2013
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With a new starting quarterback at the helm, a slew of injuries depleting an already thin depth chart and a highly publicized coaching carousel, the production of the USC offense was largely up and down in 2013 with the Trojans averaging a pedestrian 29.7 points per game, while converting just 35 percent on third-down plays.

Still, part of a USC squad that finished 10-4, this is a unit that made strides throughout the course of the season. It’s safe to say that it certainly had more than its share of shining moments.

Quarterback

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Grimble takes on bigger role

November, 28, 2013
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The 2013 season certainly hasn’t come without its challenges for Xavier Grimble.

Dinged up with ankle and shoulder injuries, it seemed like the tight end never got his chance to get going in USC's pass offense.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC tight end Xavier Grimble is hoping to finish the regular season strong this weekend against rival UCLA.
That changed this past weekend.

With a career-high six catches for 46 yards, the 6-foot-5 Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman product provided quarterback Cody Kessler with a big, steady receiving option to lean on in the Trojans' 47-29 victory over Colorado.

“It just felt good,” said Grimble, a fourth-year junior. “I always like to stay ready for whenever my opportunity comes, and it came. They called my number a few times, and I was able to make the plays.”

With USC tight ends averaging under two receptions per game as a unit heading into the contest, the production of Grimble, and Randall Telfer -- who caught a 10-yard touchdown pass -- was somewhat of a revelation.

According to Grimble, offensive coordinator Clay Helton has always wanted to utilize the tight ends more as receiving threats, but he simply couldn’t because the group has been wracked by injuries virtually all season long.

But with Grimble feeling the best he has in a while, in addition to the improved health of Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, there are reasons to believe that last weekend’s performance might just be a primer of things to come.

“It’s been a rough season for myself and the other tight ends,” said Grimble, who has amassed 21 receptions for 220 yards and one touchdown in 2013. “We’ve been injured a little bit, and it affected our place in the passing game. It’s not that Coach [Helton] doesn’t want to use us. We just haven’t been up to full speed. And now that we’re back and getting fully healthy, I definitely think there will be more balls coming our way.”

That's exactly what Grimble wants.

“I love catching passes and being physical with the defense,” Grimble said. “Just creating a different piece in the offense as a big target who can move well.”

Still, Grimble knows that as a tight end in USC's pro-style offense, he's just as valuable to the team for his blocking abilities, and it's a job that he's grown to enjoy over the course of time.

“As I got older, I kind of noticed that a pancake or finishing someone off on a block is almost just as good as catching a ball,” Grimble said. “I get a thrill out of it.”

Grimble hopes to follow up his strong performance last weekend with another one this Saturday when the Trojans face crosstown rival UCLA at home in the Coliseum. It’s a matchup that will pit him up against a pair of highly regarded outside linebackers for the Bruins.

“They’ve got some good players over there,” Grimble said. “They’ve got Anthony Barr, who’s probably a top-10 pick, and Myles Jack. They both play on the end so that’s going to be a big challenge for me, and I’m excited for it. I’m always ready to go up against whoever the top guys are. Those are the type of guys that I’m supposed to be going against.”

And with memories of the Trojans’ 38-28 loss to UCLA in 2012 still fresh in his mind, it’s a game, and a test, that can’t come soon enough.

“It’s what it’s all about,” Grimble said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

Guertler helping USC out at tight end 

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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LOS ANGELES -- With the USC Trojans’ sudden dearth of tight ends due to injuries suffered in the Notre Dame game, it was out of desperation that junior walk-on offensive tackle Nathan Guertler was converted to tight end, and the results couldn’t be more satisfying.


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WeAreSC roundtable: Making changes

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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WeAreSC staffers discuss bye-week topics, including the impact of a coaching change.

If you could change one thing on offense with Clay Helton calling plays, what would it be?

Garry Paskwietz: To develop a consistent identity. The players really liked what they saw from Helton during spring ball when he called plays in some scrimmages and it will be important to get that comfort level back. The USC offense has been up and down this year with play calling that ranged from what was seen against Washington State to solid efforts against Boston College and Arizona State.

Johnny Curren: Getting the tight ends more involved in the passing attack. Although low in numbers, the Trojans possess a very talented group of tight ends, headlined by Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, yet they’ve been totally underutilized throughout the past two seasons. This year, in fact, the group has a total of just 12 grabs. By getting this unit more involved in the offensive attack, it would add a whole new element to the passing game, and perhaps make life a whole lot easier for Cody Kessler.

Greg Katz: If I could change one thing on offense with Helton calling plays, it would be to run the ball even more and then use play-action passes off the running game, which I believe is going to happen.


[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesNelson Agholor will probably see more passes come his way as the Trojans move forward.
Coaching changes usually bring about a player who rises with the new coach. Who do you think that player is likely to be?

Garry Paskwietz: The tight end spot, with Grimble and Telfer. USC fans have sat back for the last two years and wondered why these two terrific athletes were not utilized more as part of the offense. That should change now.

Johnny Curren: Nelson Agholor. Agholor has just 11 receptions through five games, and he really hasn’t even been thrown to with much frequency this season. With Marqise Lee sidelined at the moment, he will likely take on a bigger role regardless, but with Orgeron’s statement on Monday that he wants to spread the ball around more, Agholor could really take off in the long run. As he showed in the spring, he’s a dangerous big-play threat, and he’s just waiting for the chance to break out.

Greg Katz: I think that Agholor will now be incorporated into the offense even more by this coaching change, and I suspect we will see greater use of tight ends Grimble and Telfer.


Who has been your MVP through five games?

Garry Paskwietz: I’m going to go with Tre Madden. He has been a consistent presence while averaging more than 100 yards per game, something the offense hasn’t had in a while. It becomes all the more impressive when you realize Tre is coming off knee surgery and, by the way, he had never carried the ball in a college game before this year.

Johnny Curren: Madden. While the production of the offense, as a whole, has been up and down, Madden has performed at a consistently high level throughout the season. Leading the team with 583 yards on the ground, he ranks No. 4 in the conference with a rushing average of 116.6 yards per game, and he gives USC the program’s first real workhorse at tailback in quite a while.

Greg Katz: My MVP through five games would be defensive end Devon Kennard, who has really found a home in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment. Devon has been a real force there each and every game, and you have to admire his attitude and consistency. Offensively, I would have to go with Madden, who seems to be getting better and better each week. It won’t shock me to see him now carry the ball 20 times a game with backup carries by Justin Davis.
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans held their final scrimmage of fall camp on Wednesday at the Coliseum and if you were waiting on a resolution to the quarterback battle, be prepared to wait a little longer.

Both quarterbacks had their opportunities in the scrimmage, which was a different format than normal. Instead of having one quarterback with the first unit and the other with the second, the quarterbacks alternated series with the first unit while going against the service team defense.

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek and Cody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe last scrimmage didn't give any indicator on which QB, Max Wittek (left) or Cody Kessler (right), will start in the season opener.
In the first half, the service team defense held its own by limiting the offense to three field goals, intercepting Cody Kessler twice. Those were the first two interceptions Kessler had thrown in the Coliseum this year between spring ball and fall camp but, to be fair, both balls were tipped high in the air before landing in a defender's hands.

The first interception came on the opening drive. Kessler had driven the offense into the red zone -- helped by a nice Tre Madden toss sweep behind blocking from Chad Wheeler and Jahleel Pinner -- but was intercepted by walk-on Nick Schlossberg on a slant pass attempt to Marqise Lee.

Max Wittek came in and was promptly sacked by Delvon Simmons. Wittek had a long completion to Xavier Grimble on a real strong throw. Justin Davis got the ball inside the 5-yard line, but the drive stalled and the offense settled for a 21-yard Andre Heidari field goal.

It was supposed to be a non-tackling scrimmage, but Torin Harris must not have got that memo because he laid a pretty good lick on walk-on receiver Christian Guzman. George Uko added a sack.

Kessler was picked on the next series by walk-on John Auran.

Wittek hit Agholor deep on the first play of the next drive. Schlossberg came on a blitz on the next play and was met by a terrific block from Javorius Allen. Kevin Greene had a sack on third down to force a 42-yard field goal by Heidari.

Marcus Martin started at center but he went out as a precaution. Max Tuerk was moved to center with Nathan Guertler stepping in at left guard.

Chris Hawkins had a nice pass break-up of a Kessler attempt to Lee, resulting in another Heidari field goal.

Lee went out later in the scrimmage and was seen with ice on his shoulder on the bench. By the end of the scrimmage the ice was off, and both Lee and Kiffin said things were “fine”.

The rest of the scrimmage basically belonged to Nelson Agholor. He caught two touchdowns from Kessler and one from Wittek to end the day with nine catches for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Lee had eight grabs for 107 yards.

There were plenty of players who sat out the scrimmage due to various injuries. Dion Bailey, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai, Ryan Henderson, Marquis Simmons, Scott Starr, Cyrus Hobbi, Cody Temple, Silas Redd, Jordan Simmons, Victor Blackwell, D.J. Morgan, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Kevon Seymour and Randall Telfer were all sidelinded.

The starting lineups were as follows:

Offense: Kessler, Madden, Pinner, Lee, Agholor, Grimble, Wheeler, Tuerk, Martin, John Martinez, Kevin Graf.

Defense: Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods, Uko, Jabari Ruffin, Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson, Anthony Brown, Harris, Josh Shaw, Su'a Cravens.
While USC coach Lane Kiffin did praise the way that the defense performed on a hot, balmy Tuesday, the topic of injuries quickly turned into the dominant theme of the post-practice media scrum. Kiffin called the current situation “very concerning,” particularly with the team’s season opener just a little over a week away.

“We had 21 guys today that didn’t practice, [and] there were more that couldn’t have contact in the yellow jerseys,” Kiffin said. “You start getting into the 20s with guys not practicing at all – we’ve got some really short lines and some really unfamiliar names playing with the first and second units, so obviously we didn’t plan for that to happen.”

Among those sidelined were Dion Bailey, Su’a Cravens, Kevon Seymour, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr, Victor Blackwell, Ty Isaac, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and perhaps most noticeably Aundrey Walker, who left Monday's practice early with an undisclosed injury.

“Aundrey wasn’t able to practice today,” Kiffin said. “We anticipate him practicing tomorrow.”

Marcus Martin
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergUSC center Marcus Martin returned to practice Tuesday.
On the positive side, center Marcus Martin returned Tuesday after getting nicked up during the team’s scrimmage on Sunday night, so the offensive line featured a starting lineup that was comprised throughout practice of Kevin Graf at right tackle, John Martinez at right guard, Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Chad Wheeler at left tackle.

With the three top tight ends atop the depth chart out in Grimble, Telfer and Cope-Fitzpatrick, the USC offense relied on the very unlikely trio of Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan and Kevin Greene -- a development Kiffin brought up as an example of a position group decimated by injuries.

“One [Willson] was a quarterback a week ago, one [Sullivan] we’re just learning his name, and the other one [Greene] was a defensive end a week ago,” Kiffin said. “They’re doing the best that they can.”

Highlights from practice:

  • The Trojans spent the majority of the day in an extensive 11-on-11 period, with Kessler starting the session with the first unit at quarterback, although Wittek also saw plenty of time with the ones throughout the course of the day.
  • Defensively, the No. 1 defense was made up of a group that included Torin Harris and Anthony Brown at cornerback, Josh Shaw and Demetrius Wright at the safety spots, Hayes Pullard – in a yellow jersey – and Lamar Dawson at inside linebacker, Devon Kennard and Jabari Ruffin at outside linebacker, George Uko and Leonard Williams at defensive end and Antwaun Woods at nose tackle.
  • Kessler got things started with a couple of nice quick strikes to Marqise Lee – also in a yellow jersey – right off the bat before connecting with De’von Flournoy for a first-down pick-up. Wittek followed that with a connection to Darreus Rogers for 10 yards. Javorius Allen took a handoff a short while later, but outside linebacker Charles Burks – who has impressed lately – wrapped him up immediately for a loss in the backfield. Justin Davis followed that with a nifty run in which he made a nice cut right after he got past the line for a big gain. Wittek tried to hit Sullivan in the flat, but Dawson came up and nearly picked the ball off. Allen broke off a nice, 10-yard run. Uko, Ruffin and Dawson each racked up sacks. Wittek came up with the play of the day shortly thereafter, hitting Nelson Agholor on a deep throw down the sideline over Harris for a gain of about 45 yards.
  • A brief red-zone period immediately followed, with Kessler opening things up by connecting with Flournoy for a touchdown. Kessler also connected on short passes to Sullivan, Agholor and Pinner. Wittek hit Agholor for a short gain, but he also had a ball batted down by Hutchings at the goal line. Tre Madden finished the session off by plowing into the end zone from two yards out.
  • The team finished the day with each quarterback getting a chance to lead the offense in a two-minute drill, but both drives stalled without a score.

Kiffin revealed that Wednesday’s scrimmage won’t be particularly physical – in fact, there won’t be any live tackling – but it could provide a potential look at how certain position battles are shaping up and how the rotations might look. Kiffin plans to break the team into two groups, with one of those being comprised of the players expected to play most.

“We will divide the guys so that we can really practice a game for the first time where, really, the main guys are together on one sideline, so that we can get used to the substitutions on offense, defense and special teams,” Kiffin said. “We can get used to the offense coming to the sideline with the coaches, and the defense coming to the sideline, and having a break between series. And then basically a service team will be on the other side.”
The Trojans held a night practice on Dedeaux Field on Monday and coach Lane Kiffin was very pleased with the results.

“It was our best practice of fall camp,” Kiffin said. “Now we need to get the players to understand how to come out with this kind of mindset every day. It was a very competitive session, especially when you consider it was the second practice of the day.”

As usual, the day started with special teams drills. There was time spent on learning how to scatter when a punt is coming down that is not going to be caught, in order to make sure the ball doesn’t take a bad bounce off a player on the return team. Also, players worked on chasing loose balls that had been kicked after they hit the ground. There are the kinds of details that John Baxter pays attention to as a special teams coach.

There were some individual position drills and then a lot of 11-on-11 team work in various down and distance situations.

The running backs were once again limited to Tre Madden and Buck Allen, as the other backs are sidelined with injury. Allen had the highlight play of the day when he took a handoff to the left side and outran the defense for a 60-yard touchdown.

Both players also scored multiple touchdowns in a goal-line drill that was dominated by the offense. Madden had a couple of scores to the outside, and Allen did his damage inside. Soma Vainuku also had a touchdown run in the goal-line drill while Cody Kessler hit Xavier Grimble in the end zone and he held on despite getting hit as the ball arrived by Kevon Seymour and Gerald Bowman. Kessler also connected with De'Von Flournoy for a score, while Max Wittek completed a touchdown to Victor Blackwell.

Flournoy also had a touchdown catch from Kessler on a deep ball against Ryan Henderson in a team drill. Kiffin commented after practice that Flournoy has looked good after missing some time early in camp. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick had a pair of good catches, while Darreus Rogers caught a touchdown from Wittek. Rogers was later spotted on the sideline with his pads off and ice on his left shoulder. Henderson came back and got an interception off Kessler and then Su'a Cravens broke up a Wittek pass attempt at the goal line. Scott Starr had a solid pop on Grimble after the tight end had caught a short pass from Kessler, Grimble turned upfield and was met by a solid form tackle from Starr that stopped Xavier in his tracks and caused an uproar on the defensive sideline.

The next practice for the Trojans is Tuesday at 3:15 p.m.
LOS ANGELES -- It’s been nearly four months since USC wrapped up spring ball, but that doesn’t mean that the team hasn’t been hard at work this summer. Here’s a look at 10 players who have stood out during the team’s volunteer workouts, giving every indication that they’ll hit the ground running when fall camp opens Saturday.

1. WR Marqise Lee (6-foot, 195 pounds, Jr.)
The fact that Lee -- the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner -- shined during the team’s passing sessions was hardly a surprise. What was somewhat eye-opening, however, was the way that the dynamic playmaker attacked each workout, competing with the focus of a player who was still fighting for a starting job. Showing tremendous hunger and drive, he looks ready to have another banner season as the headliner of the squad.

2. WR Nelson Agholor (6-0, 185, So.)
Building off an impressive spring in which he seized the No. 2 wide receiver job, Agholor continued to produce on a consistent basis this summer. Making highlight-reel catch after catch during the team’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods, there’s reason to believe that he can step right in and fill the shoes of Lee’s former star receiving mate, Robert Woods.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Ric Tapia/Icon SMILeonard Williams feels that he's better this year than he was a year ago, which is a scary thought for USC's opponents.
3. DE Leonard Williams (6-5, 290, So.)
On the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland awards, Williams appears poised to follow up a tremendous freshman campaign with an even bigger sophomore season. Having recently said that he feels stronger and faster than he was in 2012, the hulking Williams was dominant at times when the team came together for 11-on-11s this summer, both as a run stopper as well as a pass rusher.

4. S Josh Shaw (6-1, 205, RS Jr.)
The starter at cornerback for the Trojans’ final seven games in 2012, Shaw moved back to his more natural strong safety position this past spring and continued to line up there throughout June and July – looking more than at home, particularly after bulking up and adding 12 pounds to his frame. Showcasing fantastic ball-hawking skills during the workouts, he also emerged as a leader of the secondary. While he’s involved in a position battle with Su'a Cravens and Gerald Bowman, it’s hard to imagine him not playing a major part as a key piece in the USC defense in 2013.

5. QB Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.)
Embroiled in a highly publicized competition with Max Wittek and Max Browne for the No. 1 quarterback job, Kessler picked right up where he left off after a stellar spring and continued to stand out. Showing the same poise, accuracy and command in the pocket that he did this past March and April, he certainly appears prepared to make a strong case for that starting role.

6. S Dion Bailey (6-0, 200, RS Jr.)
After starring as the team’s starting strongside linebacker for the past two seasons, Bailey made the move back to free safety -- where he excelled in high school -- this summer and looked sharp from the get-go. In competition with Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III for the starting job, Bailey was at virtually every volunteer workout, playing fast and physical while also showing off some notable playmaking skills in coverage that the Trojans could certainly use this fall.

7. LB Hayes Pullard (6-1, 230 RS Jr.)
A seasoned veteran with 25 starts and 188 tackles to his credit, Pullard has emerged as an unquestioned leader of the team over the last five months and is one of those rare players who makes everyone around him better. A smart and heady performer, he also just might be in the best shape of his career, looking strong, fluid in his movement, and playing quick to the ball at each workout.

8. TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-4, 255, So.)
Originally making a name for himself in the spring after filling in for standout tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer -- who both battled injuries -- Cope-Fitzpatrick certainly didn’t let up this summer. The most consistent attendee at the tight end position for the throwing sessions, he caught everything thrown his way, showing off soft hands and providing the quarterbacks with a big target downfield. With only three scholarship tight ends on the current roster, you can be sure that Cope-Fitzpatrick will see the field this season in at least some capacity. The good news is that he appears up for the challenge.

9. FB Jahleel Pinner (5-11, 240, So.)
Pointed out by running backs coach Tommie Robinson as the most improved member of his group in the spring, Pinner continued to make noticeable strides this summer. Strong and athletic, he was especially impressive over the course of the last three weeks, making some nice receptions coming out of the backfield. That's more than welcome news for USC coach Lane Kiffin, who said back in April that he wanted to see more offensive production out of the fullback position.

10. QB Max Wittek (6-4, 235, RS So.)
Missing some of the early summer workouts after coming down with mononucleosis, Wittek eventually rounded back into form and finished the last month of passing sessions off strong. Putting his trademark rifle of an arm on display, he also worked hard to correct some of the errors in decision-making that plagued him at times during his two starts in 2012.

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