Watching All-American defensive end Leonard Williams and redshirt sophomore right tackle Zach Banner go toe to toe for the better part of the last two days, I had a thought: either Leonard Williams isn't all he's cracked up to be, or Zach Banner is going to be one heck of a player. I'm pretty sure Williams is all he's cracked up to be so...
Banner was arguably the best player on the field on Thursday afternoon. He's
always had the size with his power forward frame at 6'8 + to go with the feet,
but he's adding strength and flexibility before our eyes. He's going from a big
question mark in the last 12 months to a guy who could be the Trojans' best
Banner got the better of Williams on the day, and he handled Scott Felix, and
outside linebacker in pass rush drills, showing he's capable of dealing with big
and strong as well as small and fast.
Having Banner to anchor the offensive line gave starting quarterback Cody Kessler a chance to show again why he's the starter ahead of a very talented
backup in Max Browne. Browne has the better size and the better arm, but where
Kessler separates himself is his ability to go to second, third and fourth
If Browne's first read is open, he throws a beautiful ball, but his ability to
check down is a liability in what is still early in the redshirt freshman's
career. Kessler meanwhile always knows where his outlet is. Kessler will scan
downfield through his progressions, and if the play isn't available, a running
back in the flats will find the ball in his hands. Browne going through a
similar scenario had linebacker Michael Hutchings celebrating an interception on
a late throw over the middle.
I have little doubt that Browne is the best thrower on the team, but after
watching six hours of practice the last two days, I also have little doubt that
Kessler is the best quarterback on the team.
Nelson Agholor was Wednesday's standout, but he was a little quieter on Thursday
as some of the younger receivers stepped up. Agholor was still fielding punts
with the first team punt return, but using him in that situation for the bulk of
the year seems risky because of his value to the offense.
George Farmer had a solid day at receiver, showing flashed of why he was so
highly regarded coming out of Serra High School four years ago. He made a meal
out of Chris Hawkins on three consecutive one on ones beating the cornerback
deep, beating him coming back to the ball, and beating him inside.
The young receiver that is going to force his way onto the field this year is
freshman Ajene Harris of Crenshaw. Harris was impressive again. He has a great
feel for the position as if he'd been playing there his whole life. No one could
tell you he was a quarterback at Crenshaw when they see Harris elevate and use
his body to shield a defender while catching the ball with his hands. He's a
natural receiver, and he has such a large catching radius (how near to him the
ball must be for him to catch it), that he always seems to be open.
Juju Smith is another young receiver who should make an impact this season.
People tend to think of blazing fast, or cat quick when thinking of yards after
the catch, but one of the other aspects that lead to yards is brute strength.
Smith showed that putting single coverage on him and giving him a cushion is perilous
for a cornerback. More than once Smith took a short pass, slammed a defensive
back to the ground and picked up yardage after initial contact.
Adoree Jackson continued to be a standout on both sides of the ball. Jackson was
a triple threat at Serra last year, and he's getting a chance at Fall Camp to be
the same. He's lining up at punt returner, kick returner, receiver, and
cornerback, and he's one of the standouts at each position.
Jackson's teammate at Serra last year Olajuwon Tucker is adjusting nicely to a
new position. Tucker lined up at outside linebacker and defensive end last year,
but is working at middle linebacker for the Trojans so far. Like Harris at
receiver, Jackson's instincts are superb. He's active, quick, and strong. When
the third team is working, Tucker is the one making the most noise. He may not
be needed this year, but the future looks bright for him.
If there are any concerns with the first team offense or defense, it's a fairly
sizable one right now: the center quarterback exchange. Max Tuerk and Toa Lobendahn rotated at guard and center and both had their trouble getting the
ball to the quarterback. It seems like an easy fix, but it's a problem that has
plagued the Trojan practices the last two days.
Once the ball has made it to the quarterback though, the first team offensive
line looks exceptional. At a listed 6'2 and 295 pounds, Khaliel Rodgers looks
even smaller standing next to Banner, but he's a tenacious run blocker and quick
on his feet. Putting him next to Banner makes perfect sense to complement
Banner's massive size with Rodger's quickness.
If snap counts at practice are any indication, Lobendahn and fellow freshman
Damien Mama are going to play a lot this year. Lobendahn could find himself
starting the first game of the season, and Mama is strong enough in short bursts
to contribute this year.
Mama's conditioning, or lack thereof, showed itself at practice on Thursday. At
one point at the bottom of the second hour of practice, Head Coach Steve Sarkisian wasn't happy with what he was seeing on the field, and the team lined
up to run. Mama, having been a standout during individual drills was all of a
sudden a standout for the wrong reason.
Nico Falah had several nice blocks during the 11v11 as well as individual pass
protection. The freshman looks to have gotten considerably stronger during his
redshirt year and could provide valuable depth for starters Banner and left
tackle Chad Wheeler.
The Trojans are back on campus on Friday before a well deserved day off on
Practice top performers - Thursday
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