Forget the rain, it's back to ball

Heading on to exams, the Trojans were back at bowl prep early Friday morning and handled things well.

For Damien Mama, these kinds of opportunities don't come along all that often.

The 365-pound offensive guard was standing behind the second offense waiting his turn with the starters as Max Browne was sacked and separated from the football that came bounding the big freshman's way.

What to do? Just over an hour into the early morning workout in the rain from beginning to end, he had an idea. He'd scoop up the ball and take off with it before the defense got to it.

And so he did. And he just kept running and running and running, chased all the way down the field by his cheering offensive teammates -- and a few defenders. Not that they could get to him.

And before Damien had gotten back to the line of scrimmage from his scoring strike, the three horns sounded.

"I thought it would be a good way to end practice," Damien said with a big grin. He'd been exactly right.

A good way indeed to end the windy, overcast, full-pads and full-rain workout that would send players flying into the showers before heading off to 11 a.m. exams. But like Damien, mostly with smiles on their faces.

"That was fun," Cody Kessler said. "The guys loved it. The best part of that is how this team really finds the happy medium -- they can have fun and then be serious when it's time."

No word from any of the potential early departing guys. Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor took that term seriously, apparently, exiting quickly before stopping to talk. As for Cody, he said it's not on his mind or taking any of his time.

"Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska," he said. That's all he's thinking about. "I'm watching film," but until next Wednesday, after exams are completely finished, Steve Sarkisian said, there will be no installation of the Nebraska gameplan.

Right now, talk of the 9-3 Cornhuskers is mostly in generalities -- "they pride themselves on their front seven," Cody said.

Or how much they're like USC, Nebraska had a couple of losses they can look back on wondering whether they should have been 11-1 and in the Big Ten championship game, Sark said. Or how Husker running back Ameer Abdullah is as good as it gets in college football -- or at least No. 2 behind Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. Or the way Bo Pelini left them in good shape on defense or what kinds of threats quarterback Tommy Armstrong and wide receiver Kenny Bell can be.

But this was a day mostly to talk about a USC team that once again showed how much it likes to get out onto the field and play -- or practice -- football.

Once more, Sark said, there were "teachable moments," here. This season has been almost nothing but good weather. Only the Washington State game was really otherwise. Sark said this was a chance to learn how the Trojans would handle something less than perfect at the end of exam week after a four-day layoff heading into the fourth of 15 permitted bowl practices leading up to the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl (5 p.m., ESPN).

They did fine. "Energized," Sark said, even if "they've got a lot going on in their world" right now but the focus on football was exactly where it should be.

So forget the rain. Much better to talk about the Trojans, or on this day, one freshman, JuJu Smith, who had to leave early for an exam before getting singled out as a natural leader, day after day, in a rookie season where he was just 17 years old until the day of the UCLA game.

"He was the first one out on the field today, dancing in the rain," Kessler said, shaking his head. "Guys respect him -- even the older guys. "Blocking 40 to 50 yards downfield," Kessler said of just one example of the freshman wide receiver's ability to lead.

Sark had another example. Look at every touchdown, he said, and see which Trojan gets there first to congratulate his teammate in the end zone. It's JuJu.

Guys respect him," Cody said, "even the older guys. It's hard to believe he was just 17 most of the season."

Asked if he's seen the kind of leadership JuJu offers every day, on the field and off, Sark said, "I don't know if I have . . . He's a role model, it's innate with him."

What's it like for his teammates, Sark was asked. "They can't believe it."

Footnoted



USC will practice twice more this weekend on Saturday and Sunday mornings, then take Monday and Tuesday off with a return Wednesday when Sark said the Trojans will do the first Nebraska installation after exams are out of the way . . . Leon McQuay III, out of his knee brace, was still in a yellow jersey and running second team . . . Chris Hawkins getting more safety work . . . With tailback James Toland on crutches, walkon Stefan Smith, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound freshman from San Marino and Flintridge Prep, got his first real look with the third group and had a nice cutback TD run from the 20 . . . It looked like the one coach still out on the recruiting trail was Marques Tuiasosopo, reportedly on his way back from Buffalo, N.Y. . . . Asked about Oregon State hiring Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin to replace Mike Riley, on his way to Nebraska, Sark said -- with no disrespect to Riley, "who will do a great job at Nebraska" -- that Andersen, a guy he knows from the Mountain West "is another really good coach . . . it just speaks to how our conference keeps getting better."

For a wrapup of Friday morning's practice, check out FRIDAY BOWL PRACTICE 4 GHOST NOTES.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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