USC Trojans: Michael Hutchings
Pullard’s return provides boost in more ways than one
That fact was obvious during spring ball, when Pullard played an important role in making sure each member of the USC defense was on the same page as they acclimated to the new system. Pullard was a captain in 2013 who figures to hold on to that title in 2014. His return bodes well for the Trojans not only when it comes to the immediate success of the team but also in the long term as younger players like sophomore Michael Hutchings -- Pullard’s primary backup -- are afforded the opportunity to continue to benefit from the knowledge Pullard has to pass down for another season.
Can Dawson reclaim the starting spot at WILL?
One of the most tightly contested position battles leading up to the 2013 campaign was at WILL linebacker, with Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao duking it out for the right to line up alongside Pullard. Dawson ultimately came out on top, but he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee midway through the season, and it was Sarao who started the final seven games of the season.
Dawson is scheduled to be back in time for fall camp, but with Sarao performing solidly in his stint with the No. 1 unit -- both last fall and into the spring -- if Dawson wants his old job back, he’ll have to fight for it once again. Coming off a serious injury, however, it won’t be easy, particularly when you consider the fact he missed the entire spring -- a time when many of his teammates grew accustomed to the lightning-quick tempo of each practice under the new regime. And with Sarao having now proven himself to a certain extent, there’s reason to believe that Dawson, who has shined at times but underwhelmed at others, will need to come back in top form.
Competition at SAM one to watch
The competition between Dawson and Sarao at the WILL spot won’t be the only head-to-head duel to keep an eye on in fall camp. In fact, after what both Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell showed this spring, the battle at SAM linebacker has the potential to develop into one of the biggest storylines of fall camp.
Ruffin, a third-year sophomore, and Powell, a sophomore, each stood out throughout the recent March and April practice sessions, providing more than enough evidence to suggest this position should be in good hands, regardless of which player is in there at any given time. Both candidates are tremendous athletes who are strong at the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage, and they possess the size and length head coach Steve Sarkisian has said he covets at the SAM position.
Powell, who plays with a ton of energy, began the spring as the starter, but by the later stages of camp it was the rangy Ruffin who was going with the No. 1 group. Still, there certainly isn’t a lot separating these two, and when the post-spring depth chart was released, both were listed on top with the trademark “OR” designation sitting between their names, meaning this competition is still very much ongoing. It figures to remain that way through fall camp, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of the up-and-comers play quite a bit in the fall.
Newcomers ready to join the fray
While USC possesses a solid collection of talent up and down the two-deep at linebacker, with the scholarship restrictions put in place due to NCAA sanctions the Trojans still don’t have what you’d consider ideal depth just yet. That said, a number of outside linebacker/defensive end types are set to arrive on campus this summer who will help remedy that issue, and it will be interesting to see if any are capable of jumping right into the mix.
Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne’s Uchenna Nwosu is a former safety with 6-foot-3, 210-pound size who looks tailor made for the SAM linebacker position, although he’s athletic and versatile enough that he could even conceivably play on the inside. Olajuwon Tucker, from local powerhouse Gardena (Calif.) Serra, is another player who looks like a natural fit at SAM. Standing 6-3 and 220 pounds, he has the ability to cover a tremendous amount of ground in coverage, and he’s just as strong coming off the edge after the quarterback.
Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco’s Malik Dorton and Boise Timberline’s Don Hill, an early entrant who sat out spring ball with an Achilles' injury, are two more promising additions who could certainly factor in at SAM linebacker, although their larger frames suggest they might be better suited on the opposite side at rush end.
LB Quinton Powell (6-foot-2, 220 pounds, So.)
An aggressive and heady football player, Powell began turning heads after making the transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in fall camp. Compiling 20 tackles in his freshman season, he showed glimpses of his unique abilities in games as a reserve and on special teams. Still, he was caught in a logjam at weakside linebacker, so he remained hidden to an extent. With potential changes coming in regard to the scheme and philosophy of the defense, however, the timing could be right for him to burst onto the scene this spring.
The departure of Devon Kennard -- USC’s leader in sacks (9) in 2013 -- creates a void for the Trojans on defense, so there’s little doubt that new USC coach Steve Sarkisian and Co. will be holding an open audition to find a capable replacement. It’s a competition that Starr could win. His career has been stymied by injuries so far, but he made a huge impression late in the season during practice as a fast and physical performer who always seemed to be around the ball. As long as he stays healthy, this could be his chance to make a move up the depth chart.
OLB/DE Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 225, RS So.)
Like Starr, Ruffin will be one of the primary players to watch in the battle for Kennard’s old spot. A terrific athlete who actually started against Hawaii in Game 1 of 2013 but whose playing time ultimately tapered off as the campaign wore on, his ability to add some needed weight and strength this offseason will likely play a role in what kind of spring he has.
LB Michael Hutchings (6-2, 215, So.)
An intelligent football player who helped lead powerhouse Concord (Calif.) De La Salle to three consecutive state titles, Hutchings has developed steadily at USC while learning the tricks of the trade from starting middle linebacker Hayes Pullard. More than that, Hutchings has also transformed himself physically over the course of the last six months.
CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, RS Fr.)
With the Trojans plagued by inconsistent play at cornerback for much of 2013, Hawkins will undoubtedly get a long look at the position, particularly if Josh Shaw either declares for the NFL draft or makes a move back to his more natural safety spot. Having redshirted this past season, Hawkins went up against the likes of Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor on a daily basis, and although raw, his athleticism and playmaking ability was apparent.
OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, RS Fr.)
Capable of playing guard or center, Rodgers is a relentless blocker with a nasty demeanor on the field who gained notice for his play against the Trojans’ vaunted defensive front in practice. And with the departure of starting center Marcus Martin, there’s little doubt that USC needs help on the interior on offense.
QB Max Browne (6-5, 215, RS Fr.)
With Sarkisian declaring the starting quarterback job up for grabs shortly after his hiring, Browne has a lot to play for this spring. And while Cody Kessler’s solid season -- not to mention a fantastic Las Vegas Bowl outing -- certainly gives him the undisputed inside track, it will be interesting to see what Browne can do now that he has been on campus for almost a year. After all, he wasn’t the 2012 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year for nothing.
DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, RS Jr.)
Simmons, who transferred to USC from Texas Tech last offseason, stood out at times during practice not just because of his size, but also because of his play. Already possessing a wealth of experience after starting 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012, he competed extremely well against the Trojans’ starting offensive line group, and he could emerge as a factor in the defensive line rotation in 2014.
DL Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 300, RS Fr.)
A hulking defensive lineman who arrived at USC last winter with sky-high expectations surrounding him, Bigelow wound up having a more difficult time adjusting to the college game than most anticipated. Having worked hard to improve where he is in terms of his physical shape, however, there’s reason to believe that he just might now have the stamina to match his skills.
OL Nico Falah (6-6, 285, RS Fr.)
Falah is a technician with a tireless work ethic, but like many freshmen offensive linemen, he simply isn’t quite where he needs to be when it comes to his size and strength. Possessing all of the other necessary intangibles to succeed, if he adds that necessary bulk to his frame in the coming months, he could push for time.
A fast and attacking bunch, the Trojans defensive line spearheaded a defense that compiled an impressive 91 tackles for loss, including 35 sacks.
Fourth-year junior George Uko lined up opposite Williams at the other end spot, compiling 36 tackles and five sacks of his own, and Antwaun Woods did a solid job at nose tackle when the Trojans went to their 5-2 look. He also took reps at end on occasion.
The outside linebackers emerged as a key piece of the puzzle in the new defensive scheme, with SAM linebacker Devon Kennard and Predator linebacker Morgan Breslin providing steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Kennard, who has played everywhere from middle linebacker to defensive end in his career, finally found his niche standing up on the outside, pacing the Trojans with nine sacks. Breslin, who made a huge impact in 2012 as a junior college transfer, had his season cut short because of a hip injury, though he still managed to record 4.5 sacks in five games. Sliding into the lineup for Breslin midway through the season was J.R. Tavai, who had spent the entirety of his career on the interior. An exceptional athlete with unique football instincts, his standout play allowed the defense to continue on its forward path without a hitch.
Jabari Ruffin, Marquis Simmons, Scott Starr and Kevin Greene were others who played at outside linebacker.
Under the direction of first-year coach Mike Ekeler, the inside linebackers set the tone as a group that played with a high level of physicality, with fourth-year junior MIKE linebacker Hayes Pullard serving as the leader. Racking up 14 tackles against UCLA, he finished with a team-best 94 stops.
After a spirited competition with sophomore Anthony Sarao in the spring, junior Lamar Dawson emerged as the starter at WILL linebacker, recording 35 tackles before going down with a torn ACL during an October practice. With Dawson sidelined, Sarao stepped in and looked right at home, showcasing a nonstop motor and a nose for the ball.
Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell are freshman reserves who figure to factor heavily into the equation down the line.
It was an up-and-down season for a secondary that struggled at times in coverage, particularly at cornerback. They did end on a high note, helping to corral Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and the nation’s No. 1 passing attack in the Trojans' 45-20 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory.
With Torin Harris and a hobbled Anthony Brown unable to provide stability in starting opportunities, Josh Shaw, a natural safety, found himself sitting atop the depth chart at the opposite cornerback spot for the second consecutive season. Commonly pitted against the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, he did a nice job of containing elite pass-catchers such as Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Colorado’s Paul Richardson, finishing up with four interceptions to go along with 67 stops.
Ryan Henderson, Ryan Dillard and Devian Shelton also saw brief time at cornerback.
While the situation was somewhat muddled at cornerback during the early stages, it immediately became apparent that the Trojans had a wealth of talent at safety. Fourth-year junior Dion Bailey, who made the switch from linebacker to safety, more than proved himself at nickelback. Announcing Monday that he will forgo his senior season to enter this May’s NFL draft, he paced the Trojans with five interceptions.
With Shaw settling in at cornerback, senior Demetrius Wright was the primary starter at free safety. Having been buried on the depth chart for much of his career, he stepped into his new role and was solid. At strong safety, the impact of freshman Su’a Cravens was a revelation. One of those rare playmakers who only comes around so often, he played more like a seasoned veteran than a green, first-year performer, and there’s no doubt that he has a bright future.
Another freshman, Leon McQuay III, also earned valuable playing time. He also looks primed for a big 2014 campaign. Senior Gerald Bowman played sparingly early, but was ultimately sidelined with a shoulder injury and will be back next season after redshirting.
1. “Get through it” game: There are the usual questions this week about the possibility of this game being a letdown for the Trojans. The team is coming off an emotional victory over Stanford and there is the looming prospect next week of a matchup with crosstown rival UCLA that could have some very high stakes. Sandwiched between those two games is Colorado, an opponent with a single conference win this season, in a cold, nighttime environment in front of what is expected to be a sparse crowd. Ed Orgeron says his players will not let down because they trust the process of preparing for the game and they know what is still possible for this season.
2. Attack mode: The Buffs are ranked last or next-to-last in the conference in all four major defensive categories (scoring, pass, rush, total). They have the fewest sacks and are giving up the most yards per rush. That means Cody Kessler should have time to run the offense and the Trojans should be able to run when they need to. Kessler has been efficient lately and is putting up good numbers, but with these weather conditions, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Clay Helton pay special attention to the run game. Regardless, the Trojans will look to score early and often to take control of the game quickly and get the starters to the sidelines.
3. Don’t let Rich get richer: Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson is a legitimate big-play guy, a player who is very familiar to members of the USC program. He played Pop Warner football with Dion Bailey, was a high school teammate of Marqise Lee and trained in the offseason with Josh Shaw. It will be Shaw who is charged with the assignment of making sure that Richardson – who ranks No. 4 in the nation in receiving yards per game - doesn’t have the kind of night that would allow Colorado to stay in the game.
4. Say hello to reserves: If the Trojans can get a comfortable lead, look for Orgeron to make sure the reserves get plenty of playing time. It could be another opportunity for Max Wittek to show off his arm, for De’Von Flournoy to get a few catches as his career winds down or for Abe Markowitz to get some well-deserved reps at center. On defense, look for players such as Jabari Ruffin, Scott Starr, Quinton Powell and Michael Hutchings to show what is waiting for them as the future of the USC linebacker group.
5. Keep the Orgeron train moving: There is a lot of momentum for the Trojans right now under Orgeron and USC fans aren’t looking for that to end in Boulder. In fact, they are looking for the train to pick up speed on the way to the showdown next weekend in the Coliseum. The Trojans have shown steady improvement each week under Orgeron to the point that they are playing their best football of the year at the right time. And, as has been thoroughly discussed in the national media this week, Orgeron has put himself squarely in the mix as a candidate for the full-time job.
Another Saturday commitment
LOS ANGELES -- Coach Lane Kiffin put the USC Trojans through several situational drills Sunday to help prepare for game action.
“It was a real good day today,” Kiffin said. “Maybe not our best day in terms of performance, but we had some good situational work and we can learn a lot from that.
“We did red-zone stuff, some two-minute and four-minute drills, just to let our guys have an understanding of those points. We want them to pay attention to things like down and distance. We had one instance today with a third-and-long; we need to know to not give up a big play there. We can go watch the film and show them specific examples.”
There was also a bit of an announcement on the quarterback front, although it had little to do with naming a starter. Kiffin confirmed that it is officially a two-quarterback battle between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek as Kiffin told freshman Max Browne after the Saturday practice that he was out of the competition.
“Max took it like a professional,” Kiffin said. “He’s a competitor, though, and this doesn’t mean he is out of it as far as the whole season is concerned. It just means he’s out of it right now. Max is as advanced as any young quarterback. I wasn’t here when Matthew (Barkley) came in, but Browne has picked things up quickly. But now it’s a two-guy race.”
Sunday was a perfect example of why this is such a close competition. Both Kessler and Wittek made several big plays that showcased their abilities.
The first big play for Wittek was on a deep-in pattern to Darreus Rogers. A few plays later, Wittek stood tall in the pocket with a lot of pressure and he hit Rogers deep. The defensive backs collided and Rogers went for an 80-yard score. Later in the day in a red-zone drill, he hit Rogers with a fade pass for a touchdown.
There was a position switch of note, although Kiffin was clear to say it was not permanent at this point. Aundrey Walker has been out of action for the past several days, so Chad Wheeler has been taking reps with the first unit at left tackle. At the Saturday practice, reserve right guard Jordan Simmons left early and did not practice on Sunday. The coaches put Walker as the No. 2 right guard upon his return on Sunday, a position he played as a freshman. Walker said he made one mistake of crossing up the signals, but he also showed his impressive strength on one play when he shoved big Delvon Simmons out of the play.
“This is the time of year to look at switches like this,” Kiffin said. “It also speaks a little to the play of Chad Wheeler that we are even looking at this. If he wasn’t playing well, we wouldn’t do it.”
Marqise Lee spent a second day on the sidelines in uniform but no pads after suffering a bone bruise on Friday. Kiffin said they hope to get Lee out on the field soon, but he didn’t specific a time frame. Kiffin also talked about how important this time period is for Lee -- even though he is the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have things he can work on. Specifically, he mentioned the fact that Lee had four fumbles last year and they can work with him to focus on areas such as ball security.
Pinner is another young guy who is making an impression. The sophomore fullback has been getting a lot of reps in Soma Vainuku’s absence. (Vainuku returned to practice Sunday.) The wheel route from Kessler to Pinner was pretty as Pinner caught the ball in stride. That is going to be an effective weapon if he can contribute plays such as that in the passing game.
The big hit of the day came courtesy of Demetrius Wright. Wittek threw a pass from his end zone to walk-on wide receiver Robby Kolanz at the 18-yard line. Wright hit him hard right as the ball arrived, but Kolanz hung on for the catch.
Quinton Powell, who was recently moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, spent the day with the second unit behind Pullard. Michael Hutchings had been in that No. 2 spot to this point in camp.
One of the special-teams drills today was focusing on blocking field goals. Anthony Brown, Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay each had blocks.
Jahlani Tavai (Manhattan Beach, Calif./Mira Costa) was in attendance Sunday. He’s a class of 2014 DE/OLB prospect and the brother of current USC defensive end J.R. Tavai.
“I’m trying to provide depth to the line. I’m 100 percent ready to work after having a mild concussion last week. I’m willing to do anything I can to help and I trust coach Summers to put me in the right position. I was pretty comfortable today at right guard. I would actually feel comfortable at any spot really, well, maybe center wouldn’t work. I still feel left tackle is my position but I’m not surprised they wanted to take a look at this with Jordan [Simmons] being down.” – Aundrey Walker
The quarterback battle
Garry Paskwietz: Yes, this is a close competition but if you were to poll the majority of people who have attended practice, the vote would go to Cody Kessler. It doesn’t mean Lane Kiffin is thinking that way, it just means Kessler looks a little more polished and in command to those watching from the sidelines. One thing about [Max] Wittek, however, is that he is really zipping the ball, there is no doubt about his arm strength. It will be interesting to see if the Thursday scrimmage gives one of them a leg up in this battle.
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It didn’t take long for the new 5-2 defense to show itself Sunday in USC fall camp as Day 2 definitely belonged to that side of the ball.
“It was a really good day for the defense in terms of forcing turnovers,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “They did it a couple series in a row, too, which was good to see. I thought their energy was really good from the start and they carried it through the end of a long practice.”
Su’a Cravens had the first interception of the day for the defense in a throwing drill. It was an athletic, leaping play on a Cody Kessler pass intended for Marqise Lee.
“It feels good to make plays,” Cravens said. “Especially against a Biletnikoff winner, but Marqise will probably try to head-hunt me tomorrow and go deep on me, so we’ll see what happens.”
Chris Hawkins had an interception of Max Browne and Torin Harris came up with interception No. 3 for the defense in the final team drill of the day when he battled with Nelson Agholor and came down with a pass from Browne.
The defense also did a good job creating pressure on the quarterback and came away with sacks by Devon Kennard, Morgan Breslin, Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods and Quinton Powell.
On the first day of camp, Dion Bailey and Cravens lined up with the first unit at safety. On Sunday, it was Josh Shaw and Demetrius Wright. Kiffin said there is nothing to read into who is starting now because nothing is set. This is a very good safety group that can go six deep if you include Gerald Bowman and Leon McQuay. Kiffin mentioned that depth when discussing special teams; he said it will be important for the safeties and running backs to contribute there because both units have such good depth.
Speaking of special teams
The Trojans did live punt drills at the beginning of practice with Kris Albarado and Joey Krassenstein alternating as the punter. Albarado was getting some good air under his punts. Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor were alternating as the return men.
Incoming transfer defensive lineman Delvon Simmons practiced and was wearing No. 97. He’s got good size and looks like the kind of player who could make an immediate impact, although the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Simmons will have to sit out the 2013 season as a transfer from Texas Tech.
Recruits in attendance
Offensive lineman Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) and ESPN 300 defensive end Malik Dorton (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco).
More on-field highlights
In a team drill, Kessler had a completion to Agholor that gained roughly 15 yards. ... Leonard Williams fought off a block attempt by John Martinez in order to corral Tre Madden. ... Lamar Dawson and Michael Hutchings plugged a hole to stop Ty Isaac. ... Madden finished off the reps for the first unit with a long run up the middle. ... Browne came in and hit Buck Allen with a swing pass along the right side for 20 yards.
In the final team drill of the day, Demetrius Wright batted down a pass attempt for Lee, Kessler hit Agholor for a first down and Justin Davis had a pretty, weaving run along the left side for 20 yards.
Kiffin said after looking at film from the Saturday practice he was impressed with Madden and Davis. He called them “special players with unique skill sets.”
Su’a Cravens on coming out with a strong effort on Sunday, highlighted by a leaping interception over Marqise Lee on a Cody Kessler pass:
“Yesterday [Saturday] I had an all-right day. It was kind of slow for me, and I made a couple of mistakes. Today [Sunday] I feel like I was more on myself – I studied a lot with Chris Hawkins in my room before practice and I feel like I was on it.”
Marqise Lee on the interception by Cravens:
“At the end of the day, if he’s going to do it in the game, then hey, I don’t mind him doing it to me. ... But tomorrow is another day and I’m not going to let that happen.”
Leonard Williams, on the defense’s standout performance during the team period on Sunday:
“The offense got us [Saturday]. We came out kind of quiet, and I feel like the defense really responded [Sunday].”
Williams, on what has been a noticeable emphasis by the defense to attempt to force turnovers so far this fall camp:
“Day 1 of camp, the coaches just told us that the ball is the most important thing in the game, so we’ve really been emphasizing that with turnover drills with every position on the defense. We’re just really working on getting the ball. Not only are we doing it in drills, but we’re carrying it over to team when we’re going against each other. So every time that one of us is holding somebody up, another guy is coming in and going for the ball. Everyone is going for it.”
Williams, on one of the primary factors behind the defensive unit’s energetic effort on Sunday, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard:
“Hayes is the leader of our defense and he’s a really hyped guy, so we all feed off of him. I feel like everyone is really responding to it and feeding off of that energy.”
Kevin Greene, on when he found out that he would be lining up at tight end on Sunday:
“They basically told me this afternoon. Coach Kiffin said, ‘We’re going to try something different today.’ So I went out there with a smile on my face. I’m not going to come out here and pout. Whatever the coaches want me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Greene, on how the first day at tight end went:
“It was basically just about getting my feet wet. Over time I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel a lot more comfortable – once I take some more snaps and understand what I’m doing out there.”
Greene on the last time that he played on the offensive side of the ball:
“Senior year of high school – when I first started. It’s been a while. I started off playing wide receiver. I did that for about a game or two, then I went strictly to defense from there. So, just playing about four or five years of straight defense, and then switching the mindset like that in one day, it could be tough, but at the same time I’m definitely willing to learn.”
Pendergast brings experience and a history of success against Pac-12 offenses, particularly the variations of the spread-option that are so prevalent in the conference today. His defenses are also known to create pressure from multiple angles and USC coach Lane Kiffin referenced the fact that Pendergast was able to achieve quick success -- his first two defenses for the Bears were ranked No. 1 in the conference -- as a key reason why he was hired at USC. The thought being this defense is not far away from being pretty good with the right coordinator and scheme to bring things together.
In the 5-2 scheme, the Trojans consider the line to be made up of five players -- the nose tackle, two defensive ends and two stand-up outside linebackers. The standout player in spring was Leonard Williams at one of the end spots. This is no surprise after he was named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2012. The future is extremely bright for Williams to potentially become of the best interior linemen in the country. George Uko is the other end for the Trojans, and he isn’t far behind Williams. Uko consistently received praise from Kiffin in spring for his solid performances. Antwaun Woods is at the nose tackle spot, and he offers an athletic wide body who has worked hard this offseason.
On the outside, the Trojans bring a pair of very good pass rushers in Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard. Breslin led the team in sacks last year and had 3.5 sacks in the spring game from his new spot. Kennard returns from sitting out the 2012 season with injury and his skill set seems to fit the position.
There is also the potential for good depth along the line, something that is key for Ed Orgeron to rotate lines throughout the game. J.R. Tavai is the most experienced interior reserve but other options this year could include Cody Temple, Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend. That’s not a bad set of backups. On the outside, Jabari Ruffin and Kevin Greene saw action in spring while Scott Starr was originally slated to play middle linebacker but he saw time at outside linebacker in summer workouts. True freshman Quinton Powell is also in the mix, as is key special teams performer Marquis Simmons.
This position group is a strength for the Trojans. The leader is Hayes Pullard at one inside linebacker spot. Pullard has been productive for the past two years on the outside and seems to be a more natural fit in the middle. Hayes has also become one of the real leaders of the team coming into the year. His backup will be true freshman Michael Hutchings, who is coming off of three straight state title teams in high school -- he knows how to win. At the other spot, there is a terrific competition between Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson. Dawson had been a starter with the previous defense but so far Sarao has held him off through spring and summer workouts.
Here is where things get interesting. One of the hallmarks of the 5-2 scheme is corners playing man-to-man defense, often on an island. During spring drills, this was an issue, as the USC receivers had a lot of success against a corner group that is looking to fill both spots. Granted, it is a new defense to learn and the corners were going up against guys like Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor -- most corners will struggle against them. Regardless, it’s clear there needs to be improvement there once the season starts, and it stands to reason that it will happen as the players become more comfortable in the system.
Kevon Seymour appears to be a strong favorite for one starting corner spot, and he is a very good man-cover corner. The other spot had Anthony Brown as the starter in spring and summer, but there are other options to look at with Torin Harris, Ryan Henderson, Chris Hawkins and Devian Shelton.
Things are more settled at safety. Josh Shaw is at strong safety, which is somewhat of a surprise considering Kiffin had discussed moving him to corner at the end of spring, a position he played in 2012. Shaw looks good at safety, which could be part of the reason he is staying there. He will be joined by Dion Bailey, the former linebacker who will now be at free safety, his original position in high school. If both players can transition well to safety, it could be a very good duo. There is also good depth with Demetrius Wright, Gerald Bowman and a pair of talented true freshman in Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III. Cravens in particular showed a lot of promise in spring drills before getting hurt.
Andre Heidari returns for his third year as the placekicker. He was an all-conference selection as a freshman but was slowed by injuries last year. Right now he is healthy and looked good in the limited opportunities he got to kick in live situations during spring. Kris Albarado takes over for Kyle Negrete at punter while Peter McBride returns at long snapper.
Targets: Malik Dorton (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), Connor Humphreys (Portland, Ore./Central Catholic), Qualen Cunningham (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton), Jaylen Johnson (Corona, Calif./Centennial), Dewayne Hendrix (O’Fallon, Ill./O’Fallon Township), Da’Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge), Lorenzo Carter (Norcross, Ga./Norcross), Dante Sawyer (Suwanee, Ga./North Gwinnett)
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Serious competition for five-star prospect
USC might have been the early favorite to land five-star athlete Adoree’ Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra), given the pipeline it has established with his high school, but that’s no longer the case as several national programs are vying for his signature. The dynamic playmaker recently took an unofficial visit to Tennessee and is set to check out a few other schools in the Midwest when he takes a trip to his native Illinois later this summer. He is also intrigued by Florida and LSU, and UCLA presents a local challenge for the Trojans as well. Jackson wants to play some receiver in college, similarly to how De’Anthony Thomas has been used at Oregon, so look for that to become a major factor moving forward.
Trojans still need a 2014 quarterback
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WeAreSC: When did you know USC was going to be the school?
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Roommates Adoree’ Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra) and Adarius Pickett (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito), as well as 2015 defensive back Iman Marshall (Long Beach, Calif./Poly), four-star cornerback Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen) and four-star safety Quincy Wilson (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South) all turned in good showings during one-on-one drills. Brown, the nation’s No. 5-rated cornerback and No. 3-rated prospect in the state of Texas, also reached the SPARQ championship finals after posting some impressive numbers in preliminary testing, including a pair of 4.35 times in the 40-yard dash.
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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.
In short, Pullard has emerged as an unquestioned leader of the defense. It’s an all too fitting responsibility for a tried and tested performer with 25 starts and 188 career tackles under his belt. And with USC head coach Lane Kiffin and Co. desperate to fill the void created by the loss of two outspoken veterans in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey to the NFL, it couldn’t have happened at a more crucial time.
“When I first came here, I was just trying to follow in their footsteps -- learning how to run a team from what they did,” Pullard said of the duo. “When they left, I just looked to my left, and I looked to my right and it was just me -- I realized that I had to take that role right then and there, and that I had to become that vocal leader.”
“In the spring, at first, it was kind of like, ‘How do we do this?’” said Pullard, who currently stands 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds. “Then, we got it a little bit, and now we’re just trying to take the next step out here during 7-on-7, and we’re still getting better. There’s a lot more talking going on, and we have that sense of brotherhood back on defense where we want to fight for each other. It’s a bond that I really like.”
Playing fast to the ball and physical, it was the inside linebackers -- led by new assistant coach Mike Ekeler -- that emerged as one of the star units of the spring. A collection that also includes two talented athletes battling it out at the WILL position in Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao, in addition to highly touted freshman Michael Hutchings as a backup at MIKE, it’s a group that is sure to play a key role in Pendergast’s attacking defensive scheme.
“We’re coming along good,” Pullard said. “Coach Ekeler and Coach Pendergast, they put us in places where we’ve never been before, and that’s going to help us the more we practice and work on it. We’re going to be fast and aggressive. We’re going to be a lot better than last year.”
With only Pullard, Dawson and Sarao possessing significant game experience on the inside, it’s the development of Hutchings -- an ESPN 150 prospect out of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle -- this offseason that will be watched with particular interest. To no surprise, Pullard has already taken the eager youngster under his wings, and he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.
“He’s all ears,” said Pullard, a Los Angeles Crenshaw product. “We need him right now, this season. So, I’ve been teaching him the playbook and how to run everything out here. I know that transition from high school to college is a big deal, but I’ve already seen a lot of improvement from him, and he’s going to get a lot better in the coming weeks.”
In Pullard, Hutchings has what could be considered to be the perfect mentor, but as for Pullard himself, he isn’t even close to being satisfied with where he’s at just yet.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Pullard said. “I just want to be a peak performer in every part of my game. I just want to get faster and stronger. You know, film wise, changing direction…every little thing counts. I feel like the big things are given to me by God, the little things, I have to work on.”
With his mindset focused on the task at hand, there’s no telling just how far Pullard will continue to take his game in the coming months. And now, with his defensive teammates following his lead on a daily basis, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to the group’s production in 2013.
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