We thought we’d wait until USC was far enough into the spring to make these judgments worthwhile. As we prepare to close out Week 4 Saturday, we think we are.
What we didn’t think we’d have would be this many candidates for our Spring Surprises 2016. But here they are, more than we’d have imagined. More than we’d have thought possible.
Having so many to choose from is great. Having so many to rank, we decided was not all that easy so this is a pretty informal ranking. We were going to do them from 1 to whatever, a number we said we’d know when we got there. Turns out it was 18. Didn't think it would go that high.
By definition, some Trojans are not on the list. To be honest, after all the dashed hopes the last five seasons or so, we had high hopes for the coaching staff Clay Helton had assembled. And for Clay. It was time to get this right. So they're not on the list.
Last season’s end and the Holiday Bowl were lessons learned, we reckoned. So what we’re seeing from these coaches was not unexpected. And of course we’ll have a much better idea at the end of Week 3 in September in Palo Alto.
Also off the list are guys like Max Browne. We expected him, despite the lack of playing time, to perform in practice like a leader, a four-spring veteran and the player who was the nation’s top pro-style prospect in 2012.
That’s the case for most of the starters from last season, although not all. For example, you can be surprised that Zach Banner was as good as his word and has dropped 30 pounds since the end of last season. We’re not.
So those are the ground rules. Kind of. Sort of. Here they are, Spring 2016’s surprises – in the order that we thought of them.
1) Sam Darnold: No surprise that he’s playing well. Big surprise that he’s playing this well. No surprise that the redshirt freshman’s arm and his feet and his poise are special. Big surprise they’re this special this fast. You can’t hurry things like vision and poise in the pocket but those qualities are moving pretty fast for the young man from San Clemente who’s turned a quarterback competition that could have been one in name only to the real deal. And for that, Max and the rest of this USC team is much better for it.
2) Malik Dorton: The guy is a hoss. Those folks who thought the redshirt sophomore just wasn’t big enough, even at a quick, tough 280 pounds, might have been right if this team were still running last year’s stay-on-the-line, play-two-guys defense. But they’re not. Clancy Pendergast’s guys are getting after people, getting up the field, getting across the line of scrimmage to play on the other side of the ball. With his explosive “get-off,” as Malik calls it, he says he’s “ideal” for this system, and vice versa. And a D-line that looked thin to start and lost a possible starter to surgery in Kenny Bigelow all of a sudden looks like it might have found a way to play.
3-4) Quinton Powell/Michael Hutchings: We’ll let this pair of re-born and undersized seniors, share the next two spots. They almost do with their back-to-back jerseys with Powell’s 18 and Hutchings’ 19 next to one another on the inside of USC’s attacking defense. Powell is the guided missile, the special teams playmaker who showed up in coverage but whose 6-foot-2, just-over-200-pound physique just didn’t have a place in the old defense his sophomore and junior seasons. Now it does with the return of Clancy, his freshman coordinator, remembering how the Floridian could make plays. What more to ask. Pair that with De La Salle guy Hutchings, at 225 pounds almost big enough, and you have something. Every time he’s been called on the last couple of years, he stepped up. Now there’s a place for that. With the expected return of freshman All-American Cameron Smith and the arrival already of his sophomore-to-be partner in the middle, Osa Masina, this foursome – along with Olajuwon Tucker, looks like a good way to go for a Trojan team that will have to do everything right to stop the run and get to the passer. Now it looks like they might just have a chance.
5) De’Quan Hampton: It looked like the big senior wide receiver had put the hat on himself with his comments about not getting the ball thrown to him last fall even when he was open. Well, the 6-4, 220-pounder has lived up to those “throw me the ball” words by jumping out early this spring, running precise patterns, making good cuts and – most important of all – holding on to the ball. Lots of wide receivers out here vying to be the guy to step up when Juju Smith-Schuster gets double- and triple-teamed. JuJu thinks that guy will be Darreus Rogers, although he’s not on our list – not because of his play but because of our expectations for him.
6) Reuben Peters: Easy call here. Who knew USC’s latest fullback/F-back was even an offensive player? Turns out Reuben did – as did the USC coaches who had noticed him busting things up in practice last fall from his linebacker spot and wondered if the 225-pound sophomore from Loyola could do it lining up in the USC backfield. Looks like he just may be able to lead block, interchange with the tight ends at F-back and leak out into the flat to catch the football, which he seems to be able to do. For a team that must be able to run the ball, you'd better have someone who can block at the point of attack. Reuben looks like he can.
7) Leon McQuay: He’s not able to be there every Tuesday, finishing up his music industry major with a class he has to have, so the senior from Florida gets an individual workout in the morning. And then on Thursdays and Saturdays, the 195-pound safety, after getting mostly past the bone bruise in his knee, is flying around and making plays like he did that last drive in the 2014 Holiday Bowl to shut down Nebraska. And everyone says, “We always knew Leon could do it. Wonder what’s gotten into him?” How about, as has been the case for Dorton, Powell and Hutchings, it’s the return of Clancy? Works for us. And for Leon.
8) Daniel Imatorbhebhe: We thought we knew he might be able to bring some things to the tight end position as a freshman transfer from Florida, arriving ahead of his younger brother Josh, but we weren’t sure what. Now we have a better idea with the 6-3 Daniel at 240 pounds, up from 220 a year ago, jumping into the ways USC is using its three tight ends. He’d had a rep as a strong guy but we’re seeing a versatile receiver with soft hands who can catch it in a crowd and still go deep, as he becomes the blocker USC needs him to be.
9) Uchenna Nwosu: After bouncing around between inside and outside and gaining 20 pounds and surviving a suspension for the second semester a year ago, the Narbonne alum has found a home back at USC and on the edge. And that’s despite being pegged inside to start the spring. But it’s outside where he’s moving fast and making plays. The combination of Uchenna and Porter Gustin could be what the Trojans need to set the edge and play on the other side of the ball.
10-11) Chris Brown/Jordan Simmons: Another two-for-one here as this pair have pushed the offensive guard position battle joining starters Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama in a four-way fight to be the guys at guard on a new-look Trojans offensive line under the demanding Neil Callaway. Simmons, healthy now, and Brown, all grown up from his experience last fall, give USC the kind of depth it hasn’t had in a decade.
12) Rasheem Green: Another 280-pounder who feels he’s plenty big enough to play that way in this defense on this line, the 6-foot-5 Serra sophomore looks like a different man. Sure, we knew that despite his knee problem coming in last fall, he could play. It’s just that we didn’t see him get to play this way -- penetrating, aggressive, using his quickness and hands like this. He’s quiet, serious and playing well enough to be a bit of a surprise.
13) Ajene Harris: All sorts of surprises from Ajene after his double hip cartilage surgery back in August and September. Who knew he could come back this fast -- in two ways. Fast rehab and fast on his feet. And then who knew after making a bunch of early plays on offense, the former Crenshaw QB could jump over to corner as the wide receiver who could fill in on defense in an emergency? Surprise, surprise.
14) Nico Falah: Close call here on Nico. We pretty much expected the 6-4, 288-pound junior O-lineman from St. John Bosco would be able to pull it off after the way he handled the switch at the end of last fall. But to see him out there every day not missing a beat, with both Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers rehabbing from surgery, is to see a guy who just may be making a spot for himself. He surely looks, and plays the part. A much needed, spring from him.
15) Aca’Cedric Ware: Not sure if he should be here. We knew what he could do but we haven’t really gotten to see how this would work with the three-man running back corps under new coach Tommie Robinson. Now we know. In an offense that’s going to be “run-first” and “run-heavy,” the 200-pound sophomore from Texas looks like he’ll get the chance to show what he can do based on what he’s showing this spring.
16) Deion Hart: Unofficially, the senior three-time walkon transfer by way of Fullerton JC, Santa Ana JC and Sam Houston State has been in the right place at the right time recording three picks already this spring. From Hacienda Heights, the 195-pound Hart has been filling in at times with the first unit as the nickel back and looking like he belongs out there. Who knew?
17) Grant Moore: Probably not a surprise that it was Grant Moore in the middle of the three-way pile Thursday after a blocking drill against Justin Davis with Coach T-Rob that may have gone on a bit too long for Grant’s taste and the redshirt sophomore from Mater Dei responded before the pair were pulled apart. He’s the kind of tough walk-on you want out there challenging your scholarship guys. And no surprise, USC keeps finding them.
18) Chad Wheeler: Chad is our surprise bonus pick here as the 34-game starter was a question mark to even return, at first, after an off-the-field personal issue kept him out of the Holiday Bowl. And what shape would he be in? Well, that was part of the surprise. Listed at 280 pounds on the spring roster, the 6-foot-7 senior came back at 315 pounds. And he’s had a strong spring in a three-way starting tackle shuffle on both sides with Banner and Chuma Edoga.
Saturday practice advisory
For those planning to attend USC’s 10 a.m. Saturday practice, get there early. With this weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books opening in the morning, parking spaces go fast. If you don’t want to park off-campus, get there by no later than 9:30, we’d advise.
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