College football players getting 10 days away from campus for spring break can be a disaster just waiting to happen. Just ask Mississippi State. But when the USC Trojans took to Cromwell Field on Tuesday afternoon in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts, they were ready to go.
“The biggest challenge is the guys not taking care of themselves and not being ready to go when they come back,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
But Sarkisian was ecstatic with the preparedness of his squad.
“First day back, coming out of spring break, I thought was a really competitive practice. I was impressed with these guys. It went from the very beginning. It went from meetings. It was every period. It was competitive. I was impressed.”
Though there was plenty of rust with a number of overthrown passes and runners slipping down without contact, the effort and enthusiasm was there for the first of the team’s final nine spring practices.
“Overall, we did good as an offense,” sophomore offensive lineman Damien Mama said. “We came out and competed. Coach gave us a little test earlier before practice and we just came out to compete.”
“This group of guys has really responded to the things that we’re asking of them,” Sarkisian said. “It showed today. They came ready to go. They took care of themselves and now we need to recreate it on Thursday.”
That’s where USC will be tested. Rather than a let down later this week, the Trojans have to bring the competitive fire each and every day if they want to live up to the hype that is already being built for them this season.
“The challenge is to recreate that again on Thursday and again on Saturday and over and over and over again. That’s how you get good. When the guy across from you is competing at such a high level that it forces you to compete at that level, that’s how you each get better and that’s how we get better.”
In that case, the defensive backs better start upping their effort every time that receiver Steven Mitchell is lined up across from them. The redshirt sophomore had yet another strong performance. He has seemingly been open for the entirety of March, especially any time a linebacker tries to defend him in the slot. On Tuesday, Sarkisian singled out Mitchell for the “competitive catches with people around him in tight quarters.”
Mitchell's been piecing together the elements of his game throughout the spring and tough catches in traffic is an area where the coaching staff has challenged him to step up.
“It wasn’t that he had a lot of catches. He did, but it was the types of catches that he made,” Sarkisian said. “We really think he has a chance to become a really special player.”
Sarkisian also pointed out the physical nature of Justin Davis on the offensive side and John Plattenburg from the defense. Though there was not supposed to be any tackling, there were some hard hits that took players to the ground. After searching out contact and attacking defenders during practice, Davis took some extra repetitions on the Juggs machine following practice to work on his receiving, an extra effort Sarkisian said he really appreciated.
Another guy that the coaches are apparently appreciating is Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who has spent the entire spring with the second team despite being the Trojans only scholarship tight end currently participating. That was until Tuesday. Cope-Fitzpatrick had more evenly split reps with Columbia transfer walkon Conner Spears.
Cope-Fitzpatrick knew coming into the spring that he was going to have to earn his way up from the bottom of the depth chart, but he hasn’t been bothered by working with the second team (or the third or the fourth since USC has just two tight ends).
“I’ve been taking half of the plays. Regardless who is playing quarterback, I’ve got a USC quarterback back there,” he said with a chuckle. “Max Browne…has been killing it. Ricky Town’s been making some great throws too along with Cody [Kessler], who’s outstanding. I really don’t care who’s throwing the ball, I’m just out there doing my job.”
For Cope-Fitzpatrick, it’s been a struggle just to get back to game speed since today was just his seventh practice since October.
“I really haven’t been playing football like everybody else has, but I’ve been feeling good out there. My body is finally catching up to my brain and I feel like I’m starting to make plays out there.”
Though he didn’t play last season, Cope-Fitzpatrick is a veteran of Sarkisian’s spring practices and he’s definitely noticed a difference from last year.
“Compared to last year, it’s a tremendous difference. The overall team speed on the field and the way we handle ourselves. Just the maturity level, everybody seems to know the offense very well. It’s been great being out here and midway through I feel like we’re right where we need to be.”