Defense gets the early jump at the break

After 6 spring sessions, USC is ahead of a year ago with a fast-moving defense ahead of the offense. Now it's break time.

For the USC football team finishing two weeks of spring practice Saturday in full pads at the Coliseum, it was the classic good news-bad news scenario.

A defense that has lost some of its star parts stepped up on the first day of live tackling and did just that. So don't ask Steve Sarkisian for an overall evaluation of where his team is now.

Other than "It's been good," Sark said, "I feel better than last year after six practices." But not to worry, "we don't play a game for six months."

Although the USC defense looked like it wanted to play right now, causing multiple turnovers and playing fast the way it had Thursday. "We're much faster on the back end," Sark said of a secondary much deeper and more sure than last fall. "And we're making plays on the ball."

"The defense gave us a hard time," said tailback Justin Davis, who had a couple of dynamic runs but came up short on the final play of the day deciding the winner between the offense and defense on the final five plays.

"I just needed two more yards," Davis said, before he ran into Lamar Dawson, who took him down. "He's really going to be good for us the way he's been going," Davis said of the senior Dawson.

Dawson wasn't alone. Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith picked off another pass as did redshirt freshman corner Lamont Simmons, who got a chance to go with the first group and made Sark take notice.

Of Smith, Sark said "What he's shown us is that he's a better athlete than we thought he was . . . he rushes the quarterback well . . . these two weeks haven't been too big for him."

Simmons, at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, is the kind of rangy corner who's "a cool fit if you want to play man to man," Sark said, which the Trojans say they will if they can. "He made a heck of an interception . . . and he's pretty physical in the run game."

And no, Sark said, "I'm not concerned about Cody [Kessler] and the offense," after the turnovers, but he's more into overseeing "the overall operation" right now -- all three phases.

Which is why there's no overall grade here. When the defense does well, it's doing so against an offense that might not be where it was expected to be right now.

But that doesn't mean the offense didn't do some good things. Steven Mitchell, Darreus Rogers and Juju Smith all had good days catching mostly Cody's passes, while Davis and Soma Vainuku had their moments moving the ball on the ground. "He's 270 pounds and runs a 4.4," Davis said of Soma, exaggerating a bit maybe on both numbers. But you get the idea.

Still, playing fast was more the defense's deal here. "It's not about trying to go really fast [on offense[," Sark said, not right now. "It's about being fudamentally sound . . . We want to go fast and be fundamentally sound."

But when they got the chance, like when Mitchell was covered by a linebacker or JuJu by a walkon and each made quick reverse cuts after the catch, the result was a breakaway TD for each, Mitchell's from 65 yards, JuJu's from 40.

Part of Sark's "overall operation," he said includes special teams. And there, both Alex Woods and Matt Boermeester converted from 52 yards out after going one for two from 41. Boermeester's kick would have been good from 60 yards.

But for those who are into team evaluations, talk to Sark in eight or nine days after he's had time to sit down with his staff over the spring break and see exactly where this team is, where it's going and how it's going to get there.

The 10 days off, Sark says, makes it seem like they're getting two separate spring practices. And the final three weeks will finish things off.

By then, the hope here is that the offense is up to speed and the defense hasn't slowed down.


Quinton Powell missed practice after leaving early for spring break to go home to Florida to attend to family business while Khaliel Rodgers also left early to go home to Delaware . . . USC will take off next week for spring break and return to practice Tuesday, March 24, at Cromwell Field.

CHECK THIS OUT: More details on Saturday's workout at SATURDAY SPRING DAY 6 GHOST NOTES.

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