Fall Camp Five: Monday's best from scrimmage

Tracking the top performers in five categories from each day of fall practice, the first scrimmage of camp was highlighted by the pass rush exploits of Malik Dorton, Scott Felix and Porter Gustin along with the playmaking ability of guys on the outside.

If you saw him on the street, you wouldn’t know it, but Malik Dorton knows what it’s like to be the little freshman.

The 6-foot-2 lineman was a 230-pound defensive end at Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, but in USC’s 3-4 scheme under Justin Wilcox, he needed to get bigger to hold his own as a four-technique defensive end responsible for the “B” gap between the guard and tackle.

During his redshirt season, Dorton was at 250 pounds, but he still got tossed around going against guys like Zach Banner, who was 130 pounds heavier than Dorton. He and the coaching staff knew that he had to add more bulk.

This was a big offseason for Dorton. He made crucial gains.

“Malik has been here now and has gone through a spring,” USC defensive line coach Chris Wilson said. “Watching him evolve and develop, not only from a mental standpoint, but a physical standpoint, has been tremendous.”

Dorton now weighs 280 pounds.

“That's what I originally wanted to get to,” Dorton said. “I'm a four technique, so you want to be heavy and have speed all around. It can work either way, but you want to be a big guy playing my position. I think I'm good where I'm at right now. I'm feeling comfortable with the weight. My redshirt year was all about just getting bigger and stronger.”

Dorton had one of his best practices of the fall Monday night at Howard Jones Field. After having a couple of solid reps in the one-on-one periods that USC used to warm up, Dorton was able to get some consistent pressure early in the Trojans’ scrimmage.

“It's fun because now I can actually battle with some of those guys. When I first got here, I was kind of getting thrown around because I was a young guy, but now I'm starting to come along and get better.”

The third-team defensive line unit of Dorton, freshman Jacob Daniel and converted offensive lineman Jordan Simmons was in the face of quarterback Sam Darnold routinely, forcing him to try to escape the pocket rather than focus on downfield targets.

“I've been working with that group since camp started behind the older guys,” Dorton said. “Jacob and Jordan have been getting better. Jacob's a good player. Jordan, obviously, converted from o-line to d-line. He's getting better. As time progresses, those guys are going to be really good.”

During one early drive, Simmons got past the offensive line, sending Darnold scampering away to the sideline. Soon after, Dorton showed good hand technique to swat away an offensive lineman’s attempts to lock him up and forced his way into the backfield, shooing Darnold away again. A couple plays later, Simmons and Dorton both made their way toward Darnold, not giving the young quarterback anywhere to run and allowing Dorton to tap him for the sack.

“The scrimmage was tough. It was physical,” he said. “I've got to improve, but I think I did a good job today.”

  • Top Skill Player Monday: Steven Mitchell Jr.

Steven Mitchell Jr. showed his versatility and explosiveness with an outstanding scrimmage Monday night. He caught balls over the middle, in traffic, made defenders miss in tight spaces and burst down the left sideline for a long touchdown on a screen pass (though it was called back for a holding penalty).

Mitchell Jr.’s nullified screen pass was the first of three times the offense would get in the end zone on one early drive, with the first two called back. On the first-team offense’s next drive, Mitchell Jr. made a couple of defensive players cringe at the thought of watching film on Tuesday. There will be some laughs at the pile of broken ankles Mitchell Jr. created throughout the practice, particularly on one play on the right sideline that saw him juke four defenders just to pick up an extra four or five yards. But Mitchell Jr. made it worthwhile by scoring on the very next play on a quick pass to the right that he took into the end zone.

With the rush end position being a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, we’re taking advantage of its versatility to use it as our top lineman, since we featured Malik Dorton. The rush end position made a number of plays during Monday’s scrimmage, most notably from Scott Felix and Porter Gustin.

Gustin ended the practice with an unofficial tally of three sacks, routinely showing his ability to get around the edge with his speed. Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said he’s still got to develop his other moves, but the fact that he’s making so much noise this early with one move is further proof that Gustin has the chance to be an absolute monster.

But Gustin remains behind Felix and the still limited Jabari Ruffin for now. Felix had one of his best showings this fall with some consistent pressure and some big stops in the run game as well.

“For me, I felt like I did alright, but I've got to watch film. I'm a harsh critic of myself. I feel great overall right now with how my camp is going,” Felix said. “I just want to change my camp from having a good camp to a great camp. I have to elevate it every day.”

Though the rush end position is better known as more of a pass rush specialist, he said his first focus this fall has been on helping to control and curtail the run game.

“My goal every day is to make sure that no runs come out of my side. That the offense doesn't want to run my way. Just set the edge and make sure that no one is able to get through there. And then when it comes to pass rush, just pin my ears back and go sack the quarterback.”

After struggling at times last season, some expected Felix to be surpassed by Ruffin and/or Gustin, but remaining atop the depth chart has been a self-focused Felix.

“I don't really look at other people as the competition. I look at the competition as the person I look at in the mirror. It's myself,” he said. “That's something that Coach Sirmon preaches to us. It's an internal battle. That's something I've been focusing on is things that I need to get better at. I'm not really worrying about guys that are behind me. I think that's one of the things about maturing. You can't worry about somebody else because that takes away from your performance.”

When the lights come on, that’s when Iman Marshall is at his best. It’s something we saw during his high school career and that could be how his Trojan career evolves. Marshall produced his most complete effort to date at USC in the team’s first scrimmage.

He was physical, coming up to help in the run game. He showed his coverage abilities, holding his own against former Long Beach Poly teammate Juju Smith-Schuster as he got a lot of first-team reps with Kevon Seymour being held out. And of course, Marshall collected his first interception of fall camp, stepping in front of Smith-Schuster on the right sideline to pick off Cody Kessler.

Now, Marshall bobbling the ball out of bounds when it looked like he tried to showboat and high step rather than running the ball all the way back into the end zone for a pick six? We’ll chalk that up to freshman immaturity.

There were a number of plays that were top play worthy. Along with Marshall’s interception was one by Jonathan Lockett created by a leaping Olajuwon Tucker’s tip deflection. Lockett also had a touchdown return on a Leon McQuay III blocked field goal attempt that McQuay nearly over ran after getting into the backfield with ease.

Mitchell Jr.’s called back screen and juke tutorial both were quality as was a 50-yard score from Christian Tober that saw him catch a 15-yard pass coming across the formation, cutting across McQuay’s face. Once he got by McQuay, Tober was off to the races and no one was chasing him down.

But the play of the day came courtesy of another walk-on receiver, David Mellstrom. In the final segment of the scrimmage, the offense got the ball inside the 5-yard line and had to drive to mount a length-of-the-field scoring drive. The defense dominated the segment with the exception of one drive orchestrated by freshman Sam Darnold.

Darnold got plenty of help from his pass catchers with Deontay Burnett producing a nice in-and-out move on the right sideline that saw him spin away from a couple of defenders to gain another 6-8 yards and Daniel Imatorbhebhe capping off the drive with a short touchdown reception that Darnold floated over John Plattenburg.

However, half the drive came on one play when Darnold produced a perfectly placed ball into the outstretched hands of Mellstrom, who had got behind Isaiah Langley on the right sideline. Langley was able to catch up to Mellstrom and shove him out of bounds, but it was only after a 50+ yard gain.

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