Stepping in, stepping up, USC has options

Thanks to numbers, talent, competition, newcomers, veterans, you name it, Trojans have answers.

This is how it looks when you have options. When you have numbers. When you have people ready to step in. Maybe people you didn't expect would or could.

Like Michael Hutchings, junior linebacker from De La Salle's fabled program. He's somewhere in the middle, a "wedged-in" player, Steve Sarkisian called him after USC's first full-pads practice Wednesday.

You could probably make the case that USC doesn't need a player like Michael, not now. Not with Lamar Dawson coming back to join Anthony Sarao as senior starters with seven seasons of starting experience on the inside.

Not with big, athletic and getting-better-all-the-time freshmen like Cameron Smith and Osa Masina and returning sophomore Olajuwon Tucker all ready and increasingly able to step up and step in.

And yet there was Hutchings with a Pick-Six on the day's first interception and a couple of big hits that had him coming from out of nowhere with one of those fundamentally tough and sound plays De La Salle products might be expected to pull off.

"Got to go get in the cold tub," Hutchings called out with a big smile as the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder ran off the field.

"That speaks volumes to our depth," Sark said of the plan that's playing out daily on defense. "We want to rotate and rotate early in games," Sark said.

Even for someone like Su'a Cravens, who has been scrambling to get in on both the punt and kickoff return teams because he'd really like to play pretty much every play, those moments on the sidelines won't kill him.

"Yeah, I'll be OK with it," he says with a big smile that makes you think he's taking one for the team here. "Getting the young guys in and getting them ready to play is a good thing."

But getting himself ready to play as one of the good hands guys on kick returns, as the "adjuster" who takes the most dangerous man coming down at Adoree Jackson or picks up the shanked punts, Su'a says he likes those additional on-field roles where he may be the lone linebacker in the nation functioning that way.

It's good to have options.

Like when Tre Madden has just put in back-to-back big carry days coming off his foot surgery and you want to give him time off to rest to go with Thursday's day off. And your other regular returning running back Justin Davis isn't quite back with an ouchy hamstring.

What do you do? You turn it over to a trio of freshman running backs, each with his own skill set. And sit back and enjoy.

Although that may not have been the word Dominic Davis, who has shown up so well this summer and early fall, might have used for the pounding hits he took from a pair of fellow freshman linebackers -- John Houston and Masina. There will be better days for the speedster from Alemany.

But this was a pretty good day for the Texas tailback duo Ronald Jones II and Aca'cedric Ware. For the first time, Jones showed that 10.37 speed on one of his first-team carries down the right sideline.

There was a burst. A quick-footed scramble that drew an audible "ooohhh" or was it an "aaahhh" not just from the Trojan fans on Dedeaux Deck right above the run. Or from his offensive teammates, or even the guys on defense. But from his coaches.

"Definitely an electric speed guy," Sark said of his Texas Tesla. "That was nice to see." Nice, indeed.

But Sark's top compliments came for "Ced" as Aca'Cedric Ware showed how he's a different kind of runner. An inside slasher with really good feet and the confidence to follow them with the vision to know where to go.

Time and again, he'd bust it up in there as the USC offensive line adjusted to a defense that despite the loss of Leonard Williams is playing fast and athletic up front.

"We're more of an attacking front," Delvon Simmons said, singled out by Sark for "playing at a high level." And for doing the kind of athletic work that keeps offensive linemen off the linebackers, freeing them to make plays.

And yet, not taking the playmakng away from a defensive front that's shown much more ability to pressure the passer this year. "I love it," Simmons said of the quicker pace. "It lets us get to the ball and get after it.

So just playing faster is an option USC didn't choose so much last season. "We really know this defense now," Simmons says.

Speaking of options, with Viane Talamaivao still hampered by a hamstring, there was 6-foot-5, 303-pound redshirt freshman Chris Brown standing in at right guard as he has already on several occasions these first five practices.

"It's exciting," Brown said. "It helps with my confidence and working to get off the ball quicker," he says of the chance to play next to Max Tuerk and Zach Banner with the first group. He worked hard with them in the offseason hitting the weights and it's paying off, Chris says.

"Everyone's fighting for a spot," he said. "I'm just one or two plays from being out there." And he doesn't want to disappoint O-line coach Bob Connelly, who doesn't scream at them but "you don't want him to have to tell you something a second time."

Juju Smith-Schuster, just 18 but stepping into his role of veteran leader replacing Nelson Agholor, talks like an elder statesman about the young guys he's going against in the secondary.

"You never go against the same guy," he said. "It's so much fun."

Which was the case when to end the one-on-one, offense vs. defense, semi-Oklahoma drill, JuJu got the final shot for the offense to pick up a football and get four yards against a defender head on him as the entire team circled the final two.

That's when Iman Marshall, a fellow Long Beach Poly alum, jumped in and took the challenge. Against the 215-pound JuJu, learning how to use his size and physicality right now, that freshman enthusiasm wasn't enough for the 200-pounder.

"I was able to get my elbow under him and lift him up," JuJu said. "But I have to give it to Biggie, he stepped up."

That's what it means to have options. You have guys stepping up -- everywhere you look.

WEDNESDAY QUICK TAKES:


No practice Thursday. The USC team is going to see "Straight Outa Compton" and Sark seemed all fired up about the connection with Dr. Dre and USC and all of it . . . USC will come back with its first double session Friday with the 8:45 a.m. practice open to the media and the public . . . Nice crowd again today with the fans/public confined to the sideline as the Trojans donors took over the deck . . . Also big media day as the ESPN college football guys with Rece Davis, Danny Kanell and Joey Galloway stopped by in the morning for the team walkthrough that went out live and then new SoCal resident Colin Cowherd came by in the evening for his first USC practice now that he's moving to FSN1 for his daily show . . . Dominic Davis, unfortunately, got roughed up a bit on this day . . . Noah Jefferson here in pads despite his hyperextended right elbow in a sling . . . Pac-12 officiating crew here for the second straight day with the league's first-ever regular female official -- a line judge . . . Justin Davis out again, also, with that hamstring but very close to being back . . . freshman Marvell Tell got to go with the first defense at safety with Chris Hawkins on the final 11 on 11 and the freshman was there at other times as well.

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

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