The conclusion of spring practices marks a significant milestone in USC football’s offseason, and the countdown to the Trojans’ Week 1 clash with defending national champion Alabama.
Saturday’s spring game put a bow on the 15-practice offseason slate. The following are impressions of the Trojans heading into the final layoff before 2016 preparations officially commence.
Quality Options at Quarterback
Head coach Clay Helton promised after reviewing the film Monday, he would render a decision on the quarterback decision. True to his word, Helton announced via USCTrojans.com his decision: there is no decision.
Max Browne and Sam Darnold will continue their competition to captain the USC offense during August’s fall camp.
Helton also praised Jalen Greene, who ran the scout team in preparation for zone-read opponents in 2014, converted to wide receiver last season, then moved back to quarterback this offseason to compete for the vacant job.
Nevertheless, this is a two-man race.
Browne’s big arm and poise in the pocket stand out, but Darnold’s an athlete unlike any USC has had the quarterback position in recent memory. He has prototype quarterback size at 6-foot-4, but moves like a smaller player.
That the two offer distinct skill sets makes this quarterback competition unique. Either looks the part. Darnold’s play-making in the red zone might even give Helton the possibility of using both, with Darnold seeing goal-line chances a la Tim Tebow at Florida in 2006.
Throwback Offense with A Twist
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster noted the playbook shown Saturday featured more of USC’s vanilla recipes. “There’s a lot we didn’t show today, but we’re really explosive,” Smith-Schuster said.
“Not gonna show the whole bag of tricks,” is how Helton described it.
Still, some of the plays thrown into the mix should leave those hungry to see a Trojan offense of old salivating. USC distributed carries rather evenly among a corps of three running backs. Veteran Justin Davis and talented sophomore Ronald Jones II got a lion’s share of touches, continuing the trend established in the second half of 2015.
But Dominic Davis also got some chances to shine. Davis could be a nice change-of-pace complement to Justin Davis and Jones.
“When you see the speed of our running backs,” Helton said, “they can really get around the edges.”
Justin Davis is on course to be the No. 1 option, Helton said. The coach lauded the fourth-year back’s tenacity and explosion, but also talked up the continued progress of the rest of the corps.
Helton referenced Javorius “Buck” Allen’s breakout 2013 season as a motivating factor for Jones, Dominic Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware.
The diversity at running back, fueled by depth USC simply hasn’t had in several years, allows the Trojans to build from the ground and set up the pass.
When the ball goes to the air, look for more use of tight ends as pass-catchers. Helton said the tight ends were “one of the two positions [he is] most” pleased with.
Redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe has the look of a difference-maker in the passing game.
One of the most experienced lines in all of college football lays the foundation for an offense that looks committed to emphasis power over finesse. The Trojans return five starters across the offensive front.
“You look at that offensive line, it’s two seniors and three juniors,” Helton said.
An Inexperienced Front Seven Must Grow Up Fast
Coaches opted to scale back on the intensity of Saturday’s spring game, in part because of the mountain injuries along the defensive line.
Tackle Kenny Bigelow went out with a knee injury in March, leaving the Trojans with just 15 healthy linemen on the depth chart. The unit is heavy on youngsters, with sophomores Rasham Green and Jacob Daniel at tackle, and sophomores Osa Masina and Porter Gustin at end.
Masina and Gustin moved to end from linebacker as part of coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s shift from a 3-4 to 52 base, though their roles in the defense don’t change much.
The kiddie corps showed flashes of brilliance Saturday. Five-star Green broke through the veteran offensive line at one point to bat down a Browne pass attempt, nearly at the same spot on the Coliseum field where the lineman scooped-and-scored in USC’s defeat of UCLA last November.
USC’s collective maturation up front must come quickly. The two most physical offensive lines the Trojans are likely to see all season come in September matchups against Alabama in the opener followed by a trip to Stanford in Week 3.