When the USC Trojans opened spring football practice on Tuesday, there was one big, notable absence.
Sophomore tight end Bryce Dixon did not practice because he was “dealing with a student conduct issue,” according to head coach Steve Sarkisian. Dixon caught 14 passes for 198 yards and four touchdowns last season and is the only returning tight end that played last season.
While reports swirled that Dixon had been dismissed from the team, a USC spokesperson denied that claim, saying Dixon is still on the roster. Dixon’s absence overshadowed the official return of Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
Cope-Fitzpatrick had a smile as wide as the Pacific Ocean after practice. He just couldn’t help but show his joy, being back out with his teammates and being able to play with the regular first- and second-team offenses after he was relegated to scout team work last season while he was academically ineligible.
“It’s amazing,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said of being back. “I mean I don’t want to say taking time off was a good thing, but it definitely helped me re-focus and I have a new outlook on football for sure and I value it a lot more. I’m just so grateful to be back and it’s really special to be out here [on Cromwell Field] today. This is where I practiced last before I had to take a little leave, so it’s almost like it comes back, full circle.”
“I’m excited. I’m excited for him,” tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo said. “He’s worked really hard and he’s got a great opportunity. He’s making the most of it.”
Without Dixon practicing, Cope-Fitzpatrick was the only scholarship tight end available for Tuesday’s practice. Yet, he didn’t take the majority of the first-team reps. Those went to walk-on Connor Spears.
“It was a lot of fun to just come out and compete a little bit after winter conditioning,” Spears said.
Spears was also ineligible last season after transferring from Columbia to USC last January. It was just the latest transition and city for Spears, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, grew up in Rancho Sante Fe near San Diego before moving to Iowa and South Dakota during his high school years.
Spears took on the Ivy League at Columbia in New York City for a semester. He played in five games as a true freshman, catching three passes for 32 yards, which is twice as many yards as Cope-Fitzpatrick has in his college career. But Spears decided Columbia wasn’t the right fit for him and transferred to USC.
“I love it here. It’s the greatest school in the world and it’s been a blast. The coaching staff is great. All the players are great,” Spears said. “I think the toughest part was the transition from Columbia to USC. I came in a couple weeks after the semester had started for USC, so I was late on conditioning. I was late on school. I actually had a couple weeks of catch up.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Columbia has been under the bombardment of cold temperatures and snow that the East Coast has been seeing while USC has been getting plenty of sunshine.
“I can’t imagine being at Columbia right now. It’d be so cold,” Spears said. “I tell you what, I wouldn’t be looking at the sunset with the palm trees, so it’s pretty great out here.”
Even though Spears is a walk-on, he isn’t a stiff. Listed at 6-foot-6, 240-pounds, he has legitimate size. He moves well and does a good job catching the ball with his hands. On Tuesday, he seemed to be Cody Kessler’s second security blanket besides the checkdowns to the backs in the flats.
“He’s long. He’s putting weight on. He’s going to be a big kid,” Tuiasosopo said. “He’s got great ball skills. He can run vertically. We’re working every day in the run game and other aspects of being a tight end.”
“He’s a kid that does everything right and you kind of root for him. You want him to succeed. It’d be a great story, but he can play. It’s just about developing the rest of his game. Hopefully, we can do that fast and hopefully he can contribute.”
Both Spears and Cope-Fitzpatrick saw snaps with the first team and the second team, but why was a walk-on getting more of the first team repetitions over a scholarship player? The coaches wanted Cope-Fitzpatrick to work his way back up the depth chart rather than being given the spot just because he’s now the elder statesman at the position.
“Coaches pulled me aside early last week and told me it was going to be a progression,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “They really want me to come out here and earn it. Connor’s definitely earned it, man. He’s been out there working hard this last season. I’m just happy to be out here honestly.”
Cope-Fitzpatrick also has a new awareness of the opportunity he has at USC and is striving to take full advantage of it.
“I just have a new sense of focus. I don’t take anything for granted,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I really value every second I spend here at this university because it’s so precious — this time flies. It felt like I was just coming in in spring as a wide-eyed freshman and now I’m a redshirt junior.”
And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of opportunities to go around at the tight end position with Dixon out. Without Dixon, Spears or Cope-Fitzpatrick was on the field practically every single play and when the offense ran two-tight end sets, neither got a breather.
“Ton of reps. Ton of reps. It was great,” Spears said. “I mean obviously we want to have Bryce out here. We want to have more bodies out here and get some rest. But we’re making the most of it and trying to take advantage of every opportunity.”
“It’s a lot of fun. If you want to play, it’s a great opportunity,” Tuiasosopo said. “I have two guys that are working hard and they have a desire to play. They want to earn a spot here at USC. That’s fun for me because I don’t have to worry about that. I’ve just got to teach them. I’ve got to help them get better through the film and keep getting better.”
Tuiasosopo did say that both Spears and Cope-Fitzpatrick are being monitored closely to make sure that they don’t get worn down too much by all the action they are being thrown into. While Dixon’s situation is out of his hands, Tuiasosopo was happy with the performance of the two guys he had.
“You can only control what you can control and we came out and played hard today. That was a good day one.”