Clay upbeat on Pac-12 conference call

The high level of the quarterback competition and the development of a veteran offensive line were the positive surprises for USC's spring. The downside? The D-line.

Clay Helton doesn’t have it all that bad, at least not if you were paying attention to the Pac-12 football coaches on their annual spring conference call Tuesday.

Clay doesn’t have to come up with a new offensive line or find an entire new cast of linebackers or a secondary. And on offense, a whole new cast of running backs, wide receivers or tight ends the way one or more of the conference coaches do.

Sure, he does have a decision to make in the fall on his quarterback between Max Browne and Sam Darnold. But that’s pretty much it.

A number of Pac-12 coaches will go into fall camp with three quarterback candidates. Some are even talking about how they might play more than one for a while, as we’ll discuss in a followup column.

If there’s one place of real concern, Clay admitted, it’s the spot every USC fan is worried about – defensive line.

”We’re going to have to play above our heads right now,” Helton said. “We’re talented but some guys . . . “ well, some guys are just going to have to learn by playing before they're ready “the way Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Toa Lobendahn did” when they came in together on the offensive line two years ago.

They’ll make mistakes and they’ll make plays, Clay said. Now if they just don’t add to the injury numbers where a pretty healthy spring saw the senior citizen on the D-line, Kenny Bigelow, go down with an ACL injury that will cost him 2016.

”It’s our thinnest position,” Helton said. But then there’s the opposite of that, the non-thinnest position, proved out the other night when eight offensive linemen were stuck for 90 minutes on an elevator certified for 2700 pounds as they headed for a thank-you dinner cooked up by O-line coach Neil Callaway but didn’t make it past the fifth floor.

Do the math and that’s 335 pounds per man – and they hadn’t eaten yet. Whatever, “If that’s the worst thing that happens to us this year, I’ll take it,” Clay said.

That’s because the O-line heads up the two most positive developments for Clay coming out of spring. “I really like the way the O-line has come together,” he said, “and the progress we’ve made after 15 practices. Having two senior tackles and three juniors inside has made a big difference."

Not to mention Coach Callaway, who is putting together an O-line better than any since Clay has been here, he said.

The second? “How competitive our quarterback battle has been with Max Browne and Sam Darnold and even Jalen Greene."

Unexpected, Clay said, was the way a redshirt freshman held his own in his first spring with a redshirt junior in his fourth spring. And that’s no knock on Max.

”That was not what we were expecting,” Clay said of Darnold’s oh-so-impressive spring.

The timetable for announcing the quarterback, Helton said, will be “in fall camp, prior to game week -- hopefully sooner than that.” But with no specific date certain.

”It’ll be more of a feel,” Clay said. “But I’m not going to say after ‘six days’ or ’10 days’.”

As to that first game against defending national champ Alabama, “I’m not selling it,” Clay said of using it as a motivator through the spring and beyond. “They know it . . . they’re taking it to heart.”

And they are talking it up at times, Clay said, when a drill isn’t executed properly and a player will call out “We won’t beat Alabama playing like that.”

Asked about what Alabama does that makes him stay awake at night, Helton said a couple of things. “Their talent on defense, especially their front four – even if they’ve lost some guys. They can rush the passer with just four.”

Then there’s this on the other side of the ball. “Calvin Ridley is one of the best players in college football . . . and knowing Coach [Lane] Kiffin, he’s brilliant at putting them in great situations,” Clay said of the Tide’s sophomore wide receiver.

"Their D-line and Ridley will keep you up at night,” he said.

One position that will make sleeping easier, Clay said, was that of inside linebacker. “One of our deepest, most stable positions . . . we got a couple of kids healthy” and a couple more back to playing for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast where seniors Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell had done well for him three years ago.

That’s in addition to Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Cameron Smith’s return from knee surgery. “Then we got [top prospects] Osa Masina and John Houston and they burst onto the scene [at the end of the spring] . . . I can’t wait to see them in the fall." And don't forget Booda Tucker, he added.

One expectation for Clay that has proved out, he said, was the sense of team he sees developing. “I really liked how these kids are watching after one another and taking care of one another,” he said. “It’s what we expected of each other and what we expect of ourselves.”

And that was it. Unlike a number of the other coaches, Clay had questions coming for the full period and good or bad, none of them about players in the NFL Draft this week.

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