It didn’t much seem the same. Didn’t feel the same. Certainly didn’t sound the same at USC’s first spring scrimmage of the Clay Helton Era Saturday at the Coliseum.
This team is in a different place from recent years. But you want more than a feel for that. You want some proof. It’s why Clay so badly wanted to get this team to this day for practice No. 6. He wanted to see for himself.
Saturday he saw. And we saw. A team that’s farther along than it was at this time a year ago. Maybe than it was in December. A team that could play “clean” football as in efficient, smart, knowing what to do, no whiffs on the O-line, no busted coverages.
A team that has added some wrinkles to be able to run the ball and we’re not just talking the three returning tailbacks – Justin Davis, Ronald Jones and Aca’Cedric Ware – who are either “violent”, Clay’s word for Davis or “more mature” – the way he describes the two sophomores from Texas. All true.
But they’re doing things with the two tight ends -- Taylor McNamara and Daniel Imatrobhebhe and lots of fullback Reuben Peters, now wearing No. 35 after converting from LB, at the F-back spot interchanging with the tight ends which could have him at a wingback offset inside or outside the tackle or the tight end or maybe in the backfield slightly in front of the quarterback in the shotgun. Ross Cumming from 2011 anyone? Nice wrinkle.
They looked both smart and tough. Are they ready for Alabama? Not even close. But they’re moving in the right direction. And have some of the right answers.
Just the start of what we learned here on a day when the physicality of the defense got things going. If the offense didn’t execute smartly, strongly and urgently, it got run down by the likes of a 260-pound Porter Gustin or senior Jabari Ruffin or the quick, strong 235-pound Uchenna Nwosu who always seems to be in the middle of things.
Or maybe it was Iman Marshall, the big, strong corner whose plays headline Clay’s highlight reel every day, he says. Or second-year D-lineman Rasheem Green, who is benefiting from the one-gap penetrating defense. They’re not kidding about an aggressive, attacking scheme. It just takes some getting used to.
Especially by an offense just learning what it’s supposed to do and what it can do. It’s why Max Browne might look a bit more mechanical going against an already sound first defense as he works his way through read options that actually might be an option for him to run or run-pass options where he might pull it back and flip it out.
”You can see the experience of Max out there,” Clay said, “right now, Max is ahead . . . where he should be . . . but I can’t believe 14 [Sam Darnold] out there in his first spring.” The young man just keeps making plays as he did on the day’s lone explosive down-the-field throw to a leaping Ajene Harris in the end zone against the second defense.
But you get the sense that they’re not just doing lip service to the commitment to run the ball. Picture some of Western Kentucky’s take-what-they-give-you on top of Stanford’s make-them-give-it-to-you and USC’s classic pro style in a hybrid that is pretty much gimmick-free. Did we mention no music while they’re learning?
It was so quiet you could hear Clay and O-line coach Neil Callaway all the way up in Row 60. “The happiest thing I saw was [we were] playing clean,” Helton said.
So it will be a good Easter weekend in the Helton household. “I’m going to go out and buy a big steak,” Clay said. “We are farther along than I thought we’d be” even if "we have a long way to go."
Bigelow out 7-9 months
Kenny Bigelow’s announced ACL tear (same knee as one that kept him out of the 2014 season) will have the redshirt junior out seven to nine months, Helton said. He’ll serve as a captain and they’re calling him “Coach Bigelow” for his leadership this past winter
“His knee just buckled,” Clay said, “without contact as he planted” Thursday on a play the other way. The good news, if there can be any here, Clay said, was the way in Clancy Pendergast’s defense, USC will be mostly in nickel with just two down D-linemen against 10 of 12 opponents next fall – all except Alabama and Stanford, although those are two pretty big exceptions.
So with six D-linemen now and JC transfer Josh Fatu and freshman Connor Murphy coming in this summer, that should give USC plenty of numbers in those 10 games. “But we’ll be pretty thin” against Alabama and Stanford, however, Clay said.
Quick hitters here
USC went for consistency in field goal work not distance with Matt Boermeester going seven for seven from 34 yards out in live work as he just concentrated on getting it down and through, like hitting an easy lefty wedge . . . Some 400-500 fans were here at the Coliseum . . . Players limited or missing Saturday: LB Osa Masina with a hamstring he’s now able to run almost all out on now; WR Michael Pittman with a collarbone crack that will keep him out rest of spring, DT Noah Jefferson with his sore back after a CT Scan showed nothing serious and he could be back next week . . . Also out John Plattenburg, C.J. Pollard and Ykili Ross . . . Juju Smith-Schuster was out for possibly his final miss with a hamstring tweak . . . Tyler Petite finishing up his concussion protocol . . . No players available for interviews after practice . . . Safety Matt Lopes was getting his left foot checked out later. Walked off a bit gingerly . . . First full officiating crew here . . . just two flags and one of them may have been picked up . . . no turnovers . . . two sacks.
*** For more details on today’s practice, check out Saturday Spring Day 6 Scrimmage Ghost Notes.
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