It was just one of those smiles that said “We’re going to be all right. This is going to work out.”
Juju Smith-Schuster had been called on to put on the jets and beat two defenders to the corner of the end zone from 35 yards out for an in-stride catch of a perfect throw from Max Browne on the last play of the final five competition for the win. Just like that.
And so the smile . . . as Helton jogged by, with the defensive players and coaches, to start the losers’ lap. Only that wasn’t why he was smiling.
Sure, having guys like JuJu and Max able to step up and make a clutch play for the win is a big deal. And former QB coach and offensive coordinator Helton could appreciate every bit of that.
No, it was something more. A lot more. It was knowing that his defense is probably fixed. That on Day 1 in pads, it’s ahead of where it was in three of the final four games last fall despite the loss of five senior D-linemen.
Or let’s just say it: It’s ahead of where it ever was under the previous staff that didn’t have its act together – and the players knew it. They know something else now. These guys do know what they’re doing.
As Clay told the offense after watching the defense run: “You may have won the ballgame but the defense won the war.”
Indeed, starting with senior Leon McQuay’s two alert pick-sixes on deflected balls he gathered in under a perfectly timed head of steam. And according to the plan, Clay said, after sitting down for one-on-ones with all 105 players, scholarships and walkons, after the season, to talk about how a team that won the Pac-12 South takes the next two steps up – “to be Pac-12, and national, champs,” Clay said. “Leon is a talented player. We’re expecting really big things from him.”
So the guy some were worried about was getting his degree and getting ready to transfer after the spring when it was announced he couldn’t practice on Tuesday afternoons because of a required class in his music industry major needed for graduation, well, he wasn't doing that. He was preparing for something else.
He’s back with Clancy, the coach he debuted in college football with as a freshman. Having Clancy back “is a great advantage,” Clay says, the way he “brings stability to our back end – the back seven.”
For those who remember how completely unready the USC secondary was to play man-to-man against Oregon in Game 11 last fall, with one busted coverage after another, know this: In the last two days of practice, there have been no coverage busts.
Sure, Max-to-JuJu beat them. But that’s different. They were there. They just weren’t quite good enough. But they will be if Ronnie Bradford has anything to say about it. And the new USC secondary coach has plenty to say about things.
”Great job,” he kept telling his guys . . . between cross-field back-and-forth laps after practice. You’re going to be fine. You’re also going to do some running.
But you have to think watching them the rest of the day – from Leon’s two pick-sixes to the one in seven-on-seven by an all-grown-up Isaiah Langley after going through Darreus Rogers for the ball, and the score, this is coming far faster than anyone could have hoped.
And it’s not just Clancy. While he’s jumping in to work with the inside linebackers, he has Johnny Nansen working with the guys on the edge -- the SAM and Predator. Which grew praise from Clay for the way Porter Gustin who looks like he’s up to 260 or so, is starting to dominate as a pass rusher, and the way Uchenna Nwosu has been able “to move from the SAM role to a standing defensive end in the nickel,” something Clancy likes to do.
That leaves Kenechi Udeze to handle the inside three guys, something that’s already paying off with Rasheem Green’s early play, Clay says, “with his quick twitch off the ball in one on one.”
”Those guys really stood out,” Clay said.
Not a bad start – and this without Adoree’ Jackson and Chris Hawkins along the back line and those five departed seniors up front along with two senior linebackers no longer here.
One thing that stood out is the way this defense has been getting after it “from the get-go,” Clay said. It’s easier when the guys up front are getting after it. As they are.
No more two-gap defense. In both the over and under defenses Clancy favors, USC’s young but athletic front line guys are in a gap and going up the field. No more holding off two blockers and holding on for dear life.
”Great observation,” Clay said. This looks and feels different. Because it is. “When you’re standing back there [where the offensive coaches stand], you feel the pressure. Guys are getting up the field” even when they don’t get to the quarterback, the quarterback knows they’re coming.
Quick hitters here
It wasn’t all defense that earned the praise Saturday. In the team run open to 11 on 11, USC ran the ball 20 straight times while rotating through four backs -- not all that sexy maybe -- but didn’t put it on the ground or make any mistakes against a defense that’s ahead on the first day of pads, as you’d expect . . . USC added two walkons to the roster Saturday – second-year quarterback Thomas Fitts (6-2, 195) from Dallas, Tex., Episcopal School, and Milo Stewart (5-9, 170) a junior wide receiver from Palm Desert . . . Caleb Wilson has been officially struck from the roster on his way to a UCLA scholarship and Wyatt Vinci has left the team . . . Also no longer on the official staff roster are grad assistants Patrick Henderson and Drew Pearson . . . Linebacker Reuben Peters is now a fullback and wearing No 35, ala Ross Cumming in 2011 . . . former wide receiver Yoofi Quansah is now a cornerback . . . and finally, the Tuesday and Thursday spring practices will now start at 3 p.m. instead of 3:30 . . . Trojan alums here today: Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor and Jahleel Pinner along with Bill Holland from the 1970 team that won that Sam Cunningham landmark game against Alabama in Birmingham.
*** For more details on today’s practice, check out Saturday Spring Day 3 Ghost Notes.
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