During USC's first scrimmage on Monday, redshirt junior Jabari Ruffin was more a bystander than a player. Ruffin stood, with his helmet hanging in his hand, on the sideline for the majority of the scrimmage. Head coach Steve Sarkisian was soon questioned about whether Ruffin was being held out due to an injury.
Was he having issues with his surgically repaired knee after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during fall camp last year? After missing all of the 2014 season, not being ready to practice during the spring and not participating in the player-run practice portion of summer workouts, was Ruffin going to be able to contribute this season?
But then suddenly when the Trojans returned to Howard Jones Field on Wednesday, Ruffin was a pass-rushing, havoc-creating beast off the edge.
“Honestly, when I got out to the first day of camp, it was literally my first time playing football again,” Ruffin said Saturday. “Sark and Coach Sirmon wanted to ease me into it and just be sure everything was ok. As soon as I got my confidence back, which took about a week, I’m full go at this point. It’s just been uphill from there.”
A full-go Ruffin is a pleasant sight for Trojan fans. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker has a unique skill set with his length, speed and ability to cover in passing situations. That’s why Ruffin was originally the ideal SAM linebacker to play in space last season, but his injury was the impetus to Su’a Cravens' move into the box from the safety position. Now Ruffin is being asked to build off his high school defensive end experience and be a menace attacking the offensive backfield from the Rush End spot.
“In our scheme with Coach [Justin] Wilcox, the SAM linebacker has more responsibility. The Rush is pretty much the same thing, but where Su’a plays you’re getting more passes. You’re walked out on receivers more,” Ruffin said. “The Rush has the same responsibilities, but I would say more run stopping to the boundary and more pass rush.”
It is taking Ruffin some time to adjust to his new position, but his passion for the game, which helped get him through grueling rehab sessions and back on the field after the injury, is fueling him every day.
“That’s all I’ve been thinking about,” Ruffin said of returning. “If you really are in love with the game, all you think about is that. I’m very eager everyday when I get out here for practice. In a way, that injury was a blessing in disguise. I really matured as a football player and as a man.”
- Top Skill Player Saturday: Dominic Davis
Dominic Davis saved the offense from being shutout in this edition of the Fall Camp Five. Davis scored three touchdowns in three different ways, showing his versatility and explosiveness.
Read more about his day: Dom Davis is scrimmage's only offensive star
- Top Play Saturday: Michael Hutchings
The offense was putting together one of the few quality drives during the middle portion of the scrimmage, driving the ball from the 40-yard line down inside the 10 behind Max Browne and a freshman rushing attack. But once inside the 10, the offense tried to get too cute. Rather than remaining in the shotgun and running the normal attack, Browne was suddenly under center and tried to take a quick drop and throw to the right.
But he released the ball before he ever planted off his back foot. He never got his momentum into the throw. Instead of a dart that might have snuck through the two lines of defense awaiting the toss, Michael Hutchings grabbed a floated toss that never got over his head as anticipated. The junior middle linebacker stepped in and intercepted the pass.
He then took a shot at the glory of a length-of-the-field pick-six, getting a key block from Jalen Jones on Tyler Petite near midfield, but the piano dropped on Hutchings’ back at about the 15-yard line. Hustling all the way, receiver De’Quan Hampton was able to catch Hutchings and haul him down from behind, tackling him at the 2-yard line to save a defensive touchdown.
- Top Newcomer Saturday: Ykili Ross
A day after leaving practice in the early sessions and appearing to have his knee looked at on the trainer’s table, freshman safety Ykili Ross was back and ready to show out. The freshman attacked the ball much better than he has in previous practices.
With the first team offense trying to work its way away from the end zone, Ross gave away a safety blitz too early, but made up for his freshman mistake with a great play showing off his athleticism. Flying in off the left side, Ross attacked the outside shoulder of running back Ronald Jones II and then as soon as Jones II made contact, Ross immediately produced a spin move that sent him right into the backfield chasing after Cody Kessler.
Ross was baring down, so Kessler launched the ball out of bounds, but the pass never made it to the line of scrimmage. In a game, a flag for intentional grounding would have been called and Ross would have been awarded a safety with the play occurring in the end zone.
He also produced a big hit on Juju Smith-Schuster over the middle, showing he is unafraid to play physically and may have also recovered a Soma Vainuku fumble caused by Leon McQuay III on a play at the other end of the field that the media pit didn’t provide the clearest view of.
Defensive backs coach Keith Heyward still wants Ross to tackle more consistently, but has seen him improve his pre-snap play through the first two weeks. That’s a solid sign because safeties will never see the field if they can’t make the proper calls to align the secondary.
- Top Lineman Saturday: Greg Townsend Jr.
Once again, Greg Townsend Jr. stood out with his ability to get in the backfield and be disruptive. There may not be a player on the defense that will benefit from USC’s intentions to platoon defenders this season as much as Townsend. The 6-foot-3, 275-pounder is going all out and giving the offensive lineman his best on every play rather than try to conserve any juice for later.
That has translated to success thus far. And an important staff member has noticed Townsend’s strong fall camp:
“Greg has been very explosive,” USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “What I like about Greg is that he's different than some of our other defensive tackles. We have a lot of big guys, physical guys, strong guys. Greg has got more quickness.
“He's got more suddenness. He's got more pass rush ability than maybe some of our other guys and I think it shows. I think it showed today. He got into the backfield quite a bit. He's been disruptive all camp long and today was no different."