USC Newcomer Notebook: Constant Competition

Another day of full pads meant another day of competition for the newcomers and veterans alike. Receivers coach Tee Martin talks about what he's seen in his newcomers and the impact they are going to have to make.

When you are recruited to come to USC to play football, there’s one word that stands out ahead of any other: “competition.”

It’s the philosophy that Pete Carroll embraced and celebrated and one that was passed down to his assistants. Both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian’s staff have emphasized it in their recruiting pitches, but the Trojans have got back to living and breathing it every day.

Sarkisian talked Friday morning about wanting to get players into the football circadian rhythm of games where you are going hard for five minutes during a drive and then having down time during a TV timeout or change of possession and then getting going again five minutes later. The Trojans are mimicking that flow with the way practices are structured bouncing back and forth between live team competition sessions and teaching drills.

But those live sessions are all about the competition. This isn’t for the meek or the weak-heartened. You come to be a Trojan to battle against a top recruit across from you and with another right beside you. The iron sharpens iron philosophy isn’t new, but USC is again trying to make it all their own with bushels of four- and five-star prospects battling each other in each and every drill.

It takes bodies to do that on a day in and day out basis. That is exemplified best at the receiver position where the Trojans can go two and three deep with scholarship players for the first time in a handful of years.

“It’s really good for us to have depth to where we can go two or three deep and have quality players get quality reps,” USC receivers coach Tee Martin said. “Not only is it good for us, but we’re giving our defense quality looks because there’s not as much of a drop off as it was in the past when we didn’t have the numbers that we have now.”

“You come here to go against the best on the other side of the ball. Whether you are a wide receiver or a corner, you’re going to go against the best guys in the conference everyday in and out. That’s why you come here. That’s what we expect. We want that competition.”

Martin has seen his numbers vault up to seven available scholarship receivers (once Deontay Burnett receives the blueshift scholarship that is expected) this fall. And those numbers will only grow next season when USC brings in a class of potentially five additional receivers and Ajene Harris returns after season-ending hip surgery.

Counting Burnett, Martin was gifted four new scholarship receivers in potentially three different classes with Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton both being junior college transfers, Burnett a true freshman and redshirt freshmen Jalen Greene making the move from quarterback to receiver.

While Greene is still raw and going through a learning curve after not having played receiver since middle school, he has been able to showcase his athleticism and has shown good hands, though he did have an easy drop on Friday. It’s still a work in progress, but he’s much more likely to find his way onto the field at the receiver position than sitting behind Cody Kessler and Max Browne. His knowledge of the offense from the quarterback position has only helped him because he can pick up on subtle hints from the defense to have an idea of what the quarterback is likely seeing as he runs his routes.

Burnett had one drop on both Tuesday and Wednesday. They were the first two balls he may have ever seen hit the ground off his hands. The sure-handed, but slightly built Burnett wasn’t Sarkisian’s first choice in recruiting, but he’s the type of player that you are more and more impressed with every time you see him. The stick ‘em on his hands is some of the best we’ve seen.

The junior college transfers have presented Martin with a pair of big bodies that do different things. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Whitney provides more of a speed threat on the outside. After coming in early and participating in spring practice, it was expected that the redshirt junior would have the advantage amongst the newcomers and potentially be vying to push Darreus Rogers for his spot. But Whitney has to show he can catch the ball more consistently, so that he can be fully utilized.

Hampton’s wide shoulders allow him to box out defenders as he catches the ball and the junior has made a habit of catching pretty much everything that has been thrown his way, whether it’s an open pass behind a second-string defender or a ball at his shoe tops with No. 1 cornerback Kevon Seymour all over him in a one-on-one drill.

For the three first-time Trojans, the competition has seen them produce highlights and lowlights.

“It’s been up and down,” Martin said of the group as a whole. “Little flashes of he can do that, he can make some big plays. All three of them are tough.

“All three of them want to do right, but when you’re new to this system and a lot of coaches are screaming down your throat and you don’t know what to expect. It’s been a little inconsistent for all three of them and we’re just pushing them all, all three of them to come along.”

Martin understands the importance of the trio filling in behind starters Juju Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell and Rogers. The Trojans need the depth to be able to substitute freely rather than having to slow down the train in order for receivers to catch their breath because there is no confidence in the guys behind them. But Martin is also cognizant that there is a lot of work to do before Sept. 5 comes around and the Trojans have to take the field against Arkansas State with three newcomers that have never suited up for the cardinal and gold potentially being in the rotation.

“For us to be ready in the next two and a half weeks or so for our first game, we have to get ready fast. We have to have a sense of urgency there before we play our first game, but right now I want them to be more consistent and I want them to know more about what they are doing and doing it fast.

“You can’t play in this system half way sure. You have to know and that’s what allows you to play fast. We’re going to continue to get better at that with those young, new guys.”

New and Notes from Friday's Morning Practice Session:

  • Deontay Burnett made a diving tip catch that would have been a pretty remarkable four-yard gain. The throw was way behind Burnett, but he stopped his momentum and dove in the opposite direction in the same step to tip the ball to himself and caught the pass with his back on the ground.

  • With Tre Madden again given a light day, the freshman trio of Ronald Jones II, Aca'Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis getting to carry the load. Jones II seemed to get a larger portion of the carries than Ware after they split them on Wednesday. Davis gets in somewhat as the change of pace back.

  • Sam Darnold gets a couple of designed rollouts called, which fit perfectly into his game.

  • USC ran its version of its gauntlet-style 'Oklahoma' drill for the first time in fall camp. Porter Gustin blew up one attempt at the first line of defense. Deontay Burnett scored at least once during the drill and the one offensive standout in the drill was Ronald Jones II. He had a pair of scores and showed the burst he possesses when he has a little bit of space. On his second score of the drill, he got by the first line and then jetted past the next linebacker/secondary lines with just two long strides.

  • There were eight hits that I categorized as "big pops" throughout the sixth practice. Cornerback Iman Marshall provided two of those. One was coming up in support of the run in the trenches while the second was an attempt to de-cleat a ball carrier near the sideline. Marvell Tell was the only other newcomer to tally a "big pop."

  • Max Browne throws for back-to-back touchdowns in the second team's first run at the 7-on-7 pass skeleton. The first goes to tight end Caleb Wilson on a seam route with no safeties to be found nearby (none of the freshmen safeties were in at the time though). On the second play, Marshall stumbles and falls while Christian Tober is wide open in the left side of the end zone.

  • Dominic Davis catches a ball out of the backfield in 7-on-7 and shows what he can do. He makes three players miss, sending two to the turf in heaps. He is very slight, but if the Trojans can get him some space, he can be deadly with the ball in his hands.

  • The only interception of the early practice is thrown by Ricky Town, who's slow windup and delivery allows safety Matt Lopes to come over and snag it. Town had an open receiver, but waited too long and telegraphed it.

  • Porter Gustin gets beat by the first team unit for a touchdown on a wheel route by Soma Vainuku. That's a classic, "Welcome to the show, Rook!" play similar to Adoree' taking the ball away from Dom Davis the other day. That's a veteran picking on a young guy's over-aggressiveness. Porter was definitely frustrated with himself after the play. He'll learn from that mistake.

  • De'Quan Hampton scores a touchdown on a pass from Max Browne just behind the pylon on the right side. Chris Hawkins had pretty good coverage guarding him, but couldn't get around the wide shoulders of Hampton to get to the ball to try to knock it down. Hampton showed some strong hands to be able to haul the pass in despite Hawkins pulling at both of his arms.

  • Hawkins gets a measure of redemption on the next drive when he pops Ronald Jones II at the goal line for a defensive stand. The offense got the ball inside the 5-yard-line on a long catch, but couldn't pound the ball in with three runs.

  • The freshmen play a big part in the "Final Five" competition. Dom Davis comes out of the backfield and makes a reception to earn the first point for the offense. After a stopped run, Aca'Cedric Ware picks up another big point for the offense with a rush behind the left guard. Iman Marshall comes up and produces a strong tackle, but it is beyond the four yards designated as the breakpoint for the competition. The offense wins on the next play on a short toss to Vainuku.

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