Obvious/Not So Obvious - Huddle edition

While the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans was showcasing college basketball's Final Four on Saturday, the historic Los Angeles Coliseum was presenting its own Final Four of USC Trojan quarterback candidates, as coach Pete Carroll put un unfinished ribbon on spring ball with The Huddle, the final scrimmage, giving cardinal and gold fans an "Off-Broadway" preview of the 2003 team.

The Obvious - While the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans was showcasing college basketball's Final Four on Saturday, the historic Los Angeles Coliseum was presenting its own Final Four of USC Trojan quarterback candidates, as coach Pete Carroll put un unfinished ribbon on spring ball with The Huddle, the final scrimmage, giving cardinal and gold fans an "Off-Broadway" preview of the 2003 team.

The Not So Obvious - While Coliseum Trojan fans tried to compare quarterback and team notes and opinions with each other on a windy Southern California morning, fans should remember that Pete Carroll and Norm Chow certainly will not base their sole quarterback evaluations on one Huddle scrimmage, but rather the previous 14 days of spring practice for which Matt Leinart, Brandon Hance, Matt Cassel, and Billy Hart displayed their wares.

The Obvious - Saturday's Huddle had all the trappings of a Trojan football fall afternoon with heavy traffic on Martin Luther King Blvd. leading into the Sports Arena parking lots (just $6 per car), the sound of the Trojan Marching Band playing Fanfare in the distance, souvenir stands displaying the usual USC garb, and Trojan fans dressed in game attire.

The Not So Obvious - It was so game-like that there were long lines and security checks upon entering the Grand Old Lady, but Trojan fans enjoyed the festive atmosphere, the wait, and security checks with little distraction. A nice personal touch for Trojan players' parents was provided by the football staff with each player's family getting a freezer size bag full of large mug picture0 buttons of their sons.

The Obvious - Once again, Trojan fans were treated to the annual ritual of the long In-N-Out burger lines, despite the three or four big burger trucks in attendance to ease the large turnout of fans.

The Not So Obvious - Due to the long food lines, some fans became annoyed that one truck was used exclusively for the immediate football program - players, parents, and recruits. In the future, it might be helpful to put up a VIP sign for those public fans that waited in the "short line" only to be redirected to the public lines at the other end of the Coliseum peristyle end. Bottled water also became an issue as the supply ran out quickly before the scrimmage began.

The Obvious - Coach Pete Carroll has worked extrememly hard to bring back former Trojan players for all football events, and it was great to see a number of former players on the field enjoying the Trojans' football renaissance.

The Not So Obvious - Just some of the old timers included Joe Cormier, Jeff Simmons, Troy West, and former Edison High star Duaine Jackson. Even newly named Estancia High coach Craig Fertig managed to roam the sidelines shaking hands, and let's not overlook Anthony Davis, who was attired in an all black outfit to go along with a sharp black cowboy style hat.

The Obvious - The main attraction, of course, for Trojan fans was the viewing of the four quarterback candidates, especially former Mater Dei Star Matt Leinart, who was named the "current" starting quarterback by Carroll and Chow late last week.

The Not So Obvious - While Mission Viejo's Bill Hart did not take a snap due to illness, the biggest surprise was the limited playing time for junor Matt Cassel, who once was considered the front runner for the job by the many so-called "experts". Cassel finished his brief appearance throwing 1 of 5 for just 27 yards.

The Obvious -Starting the scrimmage with the first unit, sophomore Matt Leinart, who did not throw a pass all last season and was understandably nervous in front of the home folks, completed eight of 21 passes for 102 yards and one touchdown, a 27-yard score to a wide open Mike Williams in the west end zone. Leinart's opening jitters showed on his first pass of the scrimmage which was thrown behind All-America wide receiver candidate Mike Williams.

The Not So Obvious - Coach Pete Carroll gave no prior indication until very late last week that he and Chow were ready to name Leinart the starting quarterback, but SOMEBODY had to start the scrimmage with the first offensive unit. In perhaps a preemptive media strike, the Trojan coaches made a decision on Matt, but made it quite clear that the quarterback competition would work its way into fall practice.

The Obvious - Fans got a good look at Purdue transfer Brandon Hance, a quarterback still trying to recover arm strength after right shoulder surgery. The junior completed eight of 14 passes for 95 yards, and Hance's first pass of the day was a 24-yard strike to converted redshirt walk-on tight end Nick Vanderboom, who played quarterback at the Breck School in Medina, Minnesota.

The Not So Obvious - Take away Matt Leinart's 27-yard scoring strike to Mike Williams and Hance outpassed Leinart by 20 yards in seven less attempts. It is the feeling here that Hance, despite a weak right arm at the moment, seemed to have the most control of the offense on Saturday, despite being sacked three times. In fact, a healthy Hance could be the Trojans' version of Washington State's Jason Gesser. While his passes lack the zip, they were mostly on target, and there was no question of Hance's ability to read the defense, and the kid even called a timeout near his own goal line when he apparently didn't like what he saw of the defense.

The Obvious - Norm Chow called his passing attack "kind of sporadic", which is coach-speak for there's work to be done and "I am not too happy with what I saw".

The Not So Obvious - While there were six receiver drops on the afternoon, a number of passes were simply thrown behind or too low to receivers, leaving a number of wideouts open to some brutal hits by Pete Carroll's defense.

The Obvious - The USC defensive front is being hailed as one of the best in the nation with all-star candidates along the front seven.

The Not So Obvious - It certainly was a day for defense as the Trojan offense was virtually non-existent despite the fact that the starting lineup was intact. The first two running plays of the scrimmage saw tailback Hershel Dennis dropped for consecutive losses.

The Obvious - The defense was led at times by sophomore Frostee Rucker, the Colorado St. transfer from Tustin High. Rucker had a game high six tackles and a sack. The kid has been in a big battle with senior Omar Nazel at defensive end. He reminds old timers of McKay's linebacker named David Lewis, who was once ticketed for Cal.

The Not So Obvious - There are no more impressive physical looking Trojan defenders than the 6-4, 240 pound Rucker as the offensive line had their hands full trying to contain the the cat quick youngster coming off the edge. It is the depth of coach Ed Orgeron's defensive line that is especially impressive.

The Obvious - Perhaps the lack of offensive production on the ground was due to offensive line coach Tim Davis' desire to try different combinations against the vaunted Trojan defensive front. Combined with different quarterbacks, Davis played different combinations and even had starting left guard Lenny Vandermade playing some center with the second unit.

The Not So Obvious - Despite the rotation of offensive personel along the line and the attacking Trojan defense, Tim Davis' group showed good discipline as penalty flags remained tucked in official's pockets - a sign of good coaching. Don't forget that there was no real Norm Chow offensive game plan, and the Trojans kept their offense pretty much under wraps. How many misdirection running plays did you see?

The Obvious - One of the keys to next year's offensive line is the replacement for departed Zack Wilson at right guard.

The Not So Obvious -One of the best spring battles along the line was between redshirt freshmen right guards Fred Matua and Kyle Williams, both of whom had their moments on Saturday. This is a battle that also will carry into fall practice. Matua showed his aggressiveness with a couple of "takedowns" that avoided the officials' eyes while Williams showed some solid blocking technique. Much of their progress may depend on Eric Torres condition in the fall.

The Obvious - The leader of this year's offensive line will be senior Lenny Vandermade, who made a quicker than expected return to the spring lineup. Some were surprised to see Lenny start on Saturday due to is rehab.

The Not So Obvious - During the week prior to Saturday's Huddle, the WeAreSC.com staff had a dinner at a famous downtown Mexican restaurant, where we were joined by Fox media personality and former USC running back Petros Papadakis. Papadakis was asked who was the "baddest" Trojan on this year's team. Petros quickly responded, "Lenny Vandermade is the meanest and toughest Trojan on next year's club. He is vastly underrated."

The Obvious - While much of the attention during the spring has been the quarterback competiton, the "defensive quarterback" competiton, namely the middle linebacker spot, which has been up for grabs due to the ACL recovery of sophomore Oscar Lua, who was penciled in to be a sure starter prior to his freshman ending knee injury.

The Not So Obvious - With the status up in the air with Lua, Saturday's attention turned to the battle between sophomore Lofa Tatupu and junior redshirt Danny Urquhart, fomerly a defensive lineman and highly recruited by Oregon. Tatupu showed great promise on Saturday knifing in on the second scrimmage play to drop Hershel Dennis for a loss on a sweep.

The Obvious - Lofa Tatupu (5-11, 215) is the son of former Trojan All-America and NFL fullback Mosi Tatupu, the former Hawaii Punahou High star, who has gone into coaching.

The Not So Obvious - Tatupu is no stranger to the middle linebacker spot having been an all-state linebacker at King Philip Regional High in Wrentham, Mass. With his father as his coach, Lofa attained a ride to Maine, where he started as a first-year freshman and was second in team tackles. He has shown his father's aggressiveness and could be a real find.

The Obvious - A number of future Trojans were walking the Coliseum including Mission Viejo's Drew Radovich, Canyon Springs' Drean Rucker, Rancho Cucamonga's Terrell Thomas, and Tustin offensive guard Sam Baker, who was seen with his father, Dave Baker, commish of the Arena Football League.

The Not So Obvious - Sam Baker, who says he has trimmed down by 20 pounds to now weighs 320 on a 6-5 frame told a WeAreSC.com chat session that he will play in both the Shrine and Orange County All-Star Games. In the same chat, Servite's Ryan Kalil, a future Trojan center, said he will not play in any all-star games but will begin workouts with his new Trojan teammates.

The Obvious - More than a good number of fans were in "shock and awe" at the imposing sight of heralded freshman Darnell Bing in the Trojan secondary.When Bing attacks a ball carrier, it reminds of the Johnny Cash lyric, "I see the train a-comin, a-comin 'round the bend."

The Not So Obvious - While Pete Carroll sees Bing as a future Trojan defensive great at strong safety, it was Darnell's kick return that drew most of the oohs and awes. With speed, power, and moves, the feeling here remains that as good a Bing may become on defense, he would be even better at running back. The kid reminds some of a cross between Ricky Bell and Eddie George. One little girl in attendance was wearing a child's size Long Beach Poly jersey with the No. 20 and Bing across her back shoulders.

The Obvious - Perhaps the most explosive Trojan for next year is sophomore Justin Wyatt, who had an electrifying 85-yard punt return waking up the crowd and showcasing R.J. Soward moves without the baggage.

The Not So Obvious - The excitment of Wyatt comes the minute he touches the ball and turns the corner. Nobody was more excited than Wyatt's mother who was walking the mid-level of the Coliseum when her son broke off the big one. Mama couldn't contain her excitment and started screaming, "Go Justin, go, go, go. That's my baby!" Trojan fans turned to her and gave her a round of applause. Wyatt was probably the "find" of the spring. His defensive days are over.

The Obvious - Senior tight end Alex Holmes has been a tremendous Trojan asset both on and off the field with his play and recruiting host prowess.

The Not So Obvious - Holmes, who did not dress on Saturday but was sporting a Trojans' Super Bowl sized ring on his right hand, is still bothered by a back injury suffered by a vicious hit in the big Orange Bowl win over Iowa. To watch the tranformation of Alex's body through Chris Carlisle's conditioning program is really quite amazing. From 300 pounds down to a solid 265 - amazing.

The Obvious - A visitor to the last week of spring practice was former legendary Sports Illustrated college football writer Joe Jares, who now writes for USC Report.

The Not So Obvious - Jares was once sports editor for the Daily Trojan and when not talking Trojan football, the guy is an encyclopedia of placing Hollywood screen stars with their southland high schools. Joe can also give the the real birth names of stars behind their screen names.

The Obvious - One area Saturday that brought back painful memories that probably cost the Trojans a national title shot was the performance or lack of by the Trojans' kicking game as Ryan Killeen missed field goal attempts from 41 and 39 yards, and punter Tom Malone had two punts blocked - one going for a safety and the other a touchdown recovery by Mr. Walk-On Special Teams, Forrest Mozart.

The Not So Obvious - The Trojans DID make the extra points after the two offensive scores, but when the Trojans tried a kick-off pooch kick, it brought moans from those in attendance who would prefer to see kicks sail out of the end zone for no return. The kicking game is obviously still a big concern and the coaching staff knows it.

The Obvious - One offensive player that the USC staff would have desperately wanted to see this spring was sophomore fullback Brandon Hancock, who missed the entire spring with a hand injury.

The Not So Obvious - Despite not playing this spring but still being listed as the starting Trojan fullback, it came as quite a surprise to fans, coaches, and players alike during Saturday's scrimmage when USC public address announcer Dennis Packer on one play said, "Brandon Hancock the ball carrier." This brought an immediate head snap from Trojan fans still munching down their In-N-Out burgers and chips.

The Obvious - Tailback Hershel Dennis once again gave every indication that despite the tough going on the ground (78 yards in 22 carries and one touchdown) that he's one tough competitor.

The Not So Obvious - Here is a young sophomore who can really run, really catch, and now can really block. This is called NFL. Watching Dennis on the sidelines were future Trojan backs Reggie Bush, who was wearing a No. 1 LaDamien Thomlinson blue Charger jersey, and LenDale White, who sported a Trojan hooded gray sweatshirt. On close field level inspection, Bush is around 5-10 and looks about 175-80 pounds while White appears 6-1 and a bit leaner than his reported 220 pounds. Both appeared to be having a good time laughing along with future teammate Whitney Lewis.

The Obvious - The Trojans defensive line of coach Ed Orgeron looked to be in mid-season form as they lived up to their billing as one of college football's premier units attcking the Trojan offense with disciplined lane routes and creating all kinds of problems.

The Not So Obvious - While the Trojans' veteran defensive front made life miserable for Trojan quarterbacks and running backs, sharp eyes focused on future Trojan defensive lineman Ryan Watson of John Curtis High in Lousiana. Now here is a stud looking incoming freshman. Watson, who must be 6-4 and 290 pounds, looked more like a college senior than incoming freshman. Watson dwarfed Alex Holmes when the two stood together. Upclose, Watson has the "eyes" of a defensive lineman. It is very understandable why coach Ed Orgeron was foaming from the mouth in anticipation of signing Watson. The kid's a man.

The Obvious - Even in spring practice, Pete Carroll is a USC public relations bonanza who gets the best out of media and internet providers as with his appearances on WeAreSC.com answering fan questions.

The Not So Obvious - The man that assists Carroll with his day-to-day duties is the unsung Mark Jackson, who is director of USC football administration. Like Carroll, Jackson is media savvy and he should be having worked two summers in the New England Patriots media relations department before coaching three years with the Pats. As a side note, Mark is a reader of WeAreSC.com. Yes, a shameless plug.

The Obvious - Near the conclusion of The Huddle, public address announcer Packer told the large gathering of fans at the Coliseum that they would not be allowed on the field after the scrimmage, a Trojan tradition where fans can get autographs and pictures with their heros.

The Not So Obvious - Apparently there was some miscommunication, because fans were also unaware that Carroll was going to address the fans following the final play. After some obvious intense discussion by Carroll and his media staff, the coach again turned a potential public relations disaster into another positive stroke by addressing the crowd with a pep talk about next year's team and schedue and inviting all fans down on to the field, much to the excitement of those that had not departed the Coliseum after the previous announcement.

The Obvious - Many fans who were walking out of the Coliseum turned right around when they heard Carroll invite fans down to the historic Coliseum turf, a thrill for anybody who has watched games at the celebrated venue.

The Not So Obvious - Out came the autograph seekers of all ages with footballs, helmets, cameras, and media guides for signing. The crowds were intense around Carroll, Mike Williams, Matt Grootegoed, and Hershel Dennis. However, the biggest autograph surprise was the throng that lined up for a signature from Kareem Kelly, who was wearing a white NFL all-star jersey. Even incoming stars like Reggie Bush and Ryan Watson were signing. A fun time for all.

The Obvious - The Coliseum events staff had to plead for fans to leave the floor of the Coliseum as fans could have stayed longer at the Trojan football celebration. The events staff even threatened the dreaded sprinklers if fans didn't leave.

The Not So Obvious - So now Pete Carroll and staff must put away their football toys until practice in early August. USC figures to have stratospheric rankings come the fall but questions remain. Who really will take the first snap at Auburn? Are the Trojans really back or are they one hit wonders? Can the offensive and defensive lines carry the team while a new quarterback matures? Will the kicking game explode or implode? Much like the agonizing wait for next season's Sopranos, USC fans can hardly wait for the next Trojan episode.

 


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