USC getting there on offense, 1 concern on D

Clay Helton's state of Troy 2/3 of the way through spring practice is pretty upbeat . . . as is his quarterback pair's assessment of where their competition stands right now. One visitor to practice Tuesday was USC Pres. Max Nikias.

For Clay Helton, it was a chance to do a couple of things during and after Tuesday’s helmets, shoulder pads and shorts practice, No. 10 of the spring, for USC’s Trojans.

During the 20-play situational ending, he got a chance to see his quarterbacks react to all sorts of looks, pressures and blitzes thrown at them by Clancy Pendergast, something USC’s defensive coordinator specializes in.

Then afterward, Clay got to assess the state of his Trojans two-thirds of the way through spring.

Then his two quarterbacks, veteran Max Browne in his fourth spring, and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, in his first, got to talk about where they are right now – and where they are with one another.

Clay first. “Really learned a lot,” he said, of watching his guys handle everything thrown at them “designed to get them off their spots."

With both driving for TDs, and each completing a big-time throw to do so, the verdict was thumbs-up, especially Darnold’s “stutter-go route on the move,” Clay said. “That’s not an easy pass to throw.” He did hold it too long on a couple of sacks, Clay said, and he’ll be talking to Sam about that, he said.

Clay continued: “We’re very fortunate where we’re at,” he said of the QB spot. “Max and Sam are both playing very well . . . Max’s Saturday practice had him Player of the Day . . . and Jalen Greene is coming along.”

As for his offense, one Clay says is “a pro-style offense, very balanced, with the amount of skill at wide receiver and running back . . . and now with three tight ends” after last year mostly depending on one guy -- Taylor McNamara, there is the duo of Florida transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe and sophomore Tyler Petite.

”And our offensive line for the first time is two deep,” he said as it functioned without centers Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers and at the end of the day, tackles Chuma Edoga (wrist) and Chad Wheeler (ankle). That’s thanks to Nico Falah, at 288 pounds heading for 295, the heaviest of his career, stepping in at center and senior Jordan Simmons, at 333 heading down to 325, sliding out from the four-deep guard spot to right tackle with Viane Talamaivao in at right guard.

With the bone spur in his knee removed last fall, Simmons is a new man, especially with his move back to offense and under coach Neil Callaway, this has been a good spring. “I don’t know how old he is,” he says of the 60-year-old Callaway but “he brings it every day. He’s consistent. A really good O-line coach.”

”I try to [bring it every day],” Callaway says of working with a group that he describes as “athletic” and a guy like Simmons who “has a tremendous upside . . . but we’ve got a ways to go . . . we have to find five guys who play as one . . . you’re only as good as you’re weakest guy.”

That’s the challenge for Falah, getting his shot at center with the surgically rehabbing Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers out of contact this spring. “Coach is teaching me to compete, to bring it every day,” Falah says.

“It’s a culture change. He pushes us. Doing drills back-to-back-to back with almost no break. We hate it. But we needed it," Nico says. "It’s a great opportunity for us.”

You have to do it every day,” Callaway preaches. “You never get that day back. You can’t waste it.”

Browne and Darnold aren’t wasting anything as they're the focus of every practice now. “It’s a friendly battle,” Max says. “Sam and I are pretty good friends . . . Sam and I hang out together.”

No double dates, Sam says. “Just having a good time,” and yes, the quarterback competition, he says, is something “we kind of joke around about it. But we don’t like to talk about it [seriously],” he says. As to giving the younger guy advice, Max says he’ll “leave that up to Coach Tyson [Helton, the quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator].

One thing both quarterbacks are happy about is the decision to throw the ball deep and do so in practice. “I love it,” Max says. “That’s like recess football. I love to do gashes. Statistically that’s a low-percentage deal but maybe we can raise the bar there.”

The other place they’re raising the bar, although without making a big deal of it, is with the no-huddle pro-style offense with tempo that they think they can take advantage of teams with their depth and talent in second halves of games.

That was the answer from both Heltons and both quarterbacks. They’re clearly on the same page.

”Our offense will live or die with our quarterback,” Helton says. “We’ll be balanced 50-50 but we must be able to run the ball so maybe it’s 55-45.”

But there's one place for Clay that's a major concern: "our depth at defensive line," he said. "And our youth at defensive line. They're getting a little better but we have a long way to go. That's the one place we have to stay lucky and healthy . . . They're very young."

One piece of good spring news on the D-line has been the play of "quick-twitch" Malik Dorton, who has been running with the ones with Rasheem Green despite his listed 275 pounds. He's a load to handle in USC's one-gap, penetrating defense, Clay says.

A two-gap, like last year, would have been a problem for Malik but he's low and fast and strong and tough and handling himself really well on a defense where Clancy wiped the slate clean and had everyone start over, Clay says.

Quick hitters here

Pres. Max Nikias here today at practice and seemed to be enjoying himself, getting called “Coach Nikias” by Clay, who presented him with a sized SC cap that fit perfectly . . . USC’s 44 players with a 3.0 GPA or better the first semester were headed over to the baseball game after practice to be honored there for their academic achievements . . . CB Jonathan Lockett (concussion) and S John Plattenburg (ankle) not practicing and not out here . . . WR Ajene Harris was pressed into service as a corner despite his cardinal jersey and will be, along with JuJu Smith-Schuster, the player designated after Adoree Jackson to go both ways in an absolute emergency . . . S Matt Lopes was back and full-go . . . Players limited included WR Michael Pittman, who did specialty pass-catching drills without contact and DT Noah Jefferson who did individual drills in pads . . . missing were Ykili Ross, Clayton Johnston and the trio of post-surgical players who have been out all spring – Chris Hawkins, Lobendahn and Cameron Smith.

*** For more details on Tuesday’s practice, check out Tuesday Spring Day 10 Ghost Notes.

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