A year ago at this time, redshirt sophomore Khaliel Rodgers was locking up a starting guard position. But then, as fate is often a fickle mistress, a knee injury forced him to miss the beginning of the season and opened the door for the freshman trio of Viane Talamaivao, Toa Lobendahn and Damien Mama to establish themselves at the two guard positions.
Rodgers wasn’t able to get healthy and into a game until the Trojans played Colorado in the middle of the season. After Wheeler tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Utah game, Rodgers took over as the starting left guard for three games. Damien Mama eventually surpassed Rodgers starting the final two games and enters this season in the starter’s role.
Rodgers spent the spring transitioning to the center position backing up All-American candidate Max Tuerk, but with Talamaivao nursing a hamstring injury, Rodgers got an opportunity to get reps with the first team offensive line unit once again, taking the majority of the snaps at right guard during Friday morning’s practice.
“It means everything,” Rodgers said of his first-team reps. “I’ve been in the position before. It’s not new to me. Just come in and work when they call my name.”
New offensive line coach Bob Connelly has rotated a number of players in and out of the lineup with different guys getting an opportunity to work with the first-team regulars.
“Coach used the term platoon,” Rodgers said. “He used as an example the Kentucky [basketball] starting five — how they switch in and they play as their starting five. With the o-line, it’s not really much of a sub, we just put players in and we’re platooning them back and forth. It’s kind of new and it works.”
Most players are learning multiple positions as well that’s why Rodgers wasn’t surprised by his opportunity at right guard, but he was still thankful.
“It’s everything to me to get to play two positions. Making me learn more, learn the system more. Wherever my coaches need me, I’m going to play,” Rodgers said. “If you focus, it helps you at the end because you’re learning two positions and you know what the other position is doing.”
- Top Play Friday: Steven Mitchell Jr.
Steven Mitchell Jr. had another strong practice. For an elusive, quick twitch guy, Mitchell Jr. has seemed to rise to the occasion and forefront when USC is in pads than shorts and t-shirts — which is exactly what you love to see in those type of athletes. Though he had a couple of scores on Friday, Mitchell Jr.’s best play wasn’t a touchdown.
Sometimes we see Mitchell Jr. break a defender’s ankles, not literally, but cross them up enough for them to hit the turf. But Friday was the first time we’ve ever seen Mitchell Jr. or another receiver break a defender’s shoe, literally. Mitchell Jr. ran a double-move route and when redshirt sophomore walk-on safety Matt Lopes tried to open his hips and turn to run with Mitchell Jr. on the second move, he had a blowout. The sole of his shoe ripped away from the outside, causing Lopes to stumble and lose Mitchell Jr.
But the play wasn’t over. The redshirt sophomore speedster still had to go get the ball. It was nearly thrown beyond a stumbling Mitchell Jr., but he got his fingertips on the ball at the 5-yard line and then hauled it in as he tumbled to the ground at the 3-yard line.
- Top Skill Player Friday: Cody Kessler
We’ve come to expect Cody Kessler to be rock solid in practice. We’re more surprised when he makes a mistake than intrigued when he threads the needle with a pass. But he showed more than just his accuracy and knowledge of the offense in the early morning session.
Kessler showed his leadership. He isn’t normally the rah rah type, but he can be stern with his teammates when he isn’t happy with their effort. At the beginning, the offense looked like it was out for the first morning practice of fall camp and two-a-days. There were a couple of alignment issues in the first walkthrough period. On the first couple of plays in the initial 11-on-11 team session, the offensive line got pushed back. That was enough for Kessler. He went off on the entire offensive unit letting them know that the effort was lackluster and unacceptable.
- Top Lineman Friday: Chad Wheeler
Jonathan Lockett likely never even saw it coming. Steven Mitchell Jr. jaunted inside at the line of scrimmage and Lockett chased after him as Mitchell Jr. caught a quick pass in the right flat. But this wasn’t a one-on-one matchup for Mitchell Jr. to try to use his shiftiness to beat Lockett and get into the end zone. It was a tunnel screen and Lockett found out quickly. Left tackle Chad Wheeler put a good thump on Lockett that cleared the way for Mitchell Jr. to get past the first line of defense and into the end zone with relative ease.
It was a great sign for Wheeler. Coming off tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the eighth game of the season last year, the play was a display of mobility we had yet to see from Wheeler. Though he hasn’t missed much in fall camp, taking a few less reps that the rest of the slated starters, the touchdown-creating block in the flat was a great indicator that if he isn’t full strength, he is damn near it.
- Top Newcomer Friday: Dominic Davis
There hasn’t been any player that has been on the ground as much as freshman running back Dominic Davis. Even before the Trojans got into pads, Davis was routinely hitting the ground. He has such a slight build at a generously listed 175 pounds that he has been pushed around a bit early in camp. But he has also showed flashes of his playmaking ability, which is exactly what he did Friday morning.
Davis had a couple of really nice plays after catching the ball out of the backfield. During the “Final Five” competition, he helped lead the offense to a 3-1 victory with a reception on the first play, picking up six or seven yards. When Davis gets in space, he can be really, really, really dangerous, particularly for opposing defenders ankles. In the play to the left, Davis caught a short pass during a 7-on-7 pass skeleton drill, turned upfield and made three different defensive players miss with a variety of quick shakes and change-of-direction moves.
Davis is such a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands that it is hard to not see him getting on the field this season. He is a home run threat with his quicks and top-end speed. However, it wouldn’t hurt for him to have a redshirt year spent in the weight room working exclusively on his lower body strength to try to turn him into the type of muscular dynamo that Darren Sproles, who everyone routinely compares Davis (and every other diminutive, shifty running back) to, became. It is an interesting dilemma for the coaching staff.