If you can’t be upbeat and optimistic on the first day of summer workouts, you’re probably looking at a long, long summer followed by an even longer fall.
Sure there’s the 2016 schedule, unquestionably the nation’s toughest, that USC faces. And with a new coaching staff, you’re going head-to-head right away with the likes of Nick Saban and David Shaw.
But those negative thoughts are for September and beyond. The only way it matters here and now is as a motivator.
At this moment, these USC Trojans have simply this: They control who they are and what they do here – on this early Tuesday morning starting out at 6 a.m. with the coaches.
Finishing up more than two hours later on Cromwell Field, they're sent off with quarterback Max Browne's most serious player-as-coach advisory that "there's a direct correlation between what happens here and winning football games."
Can’t argue with that. What happened here Tuesday mattered. There is a correlation just as there is with coaching and talent, toughness and numbers, you name it, it all matters.
But what happened here had to make you happy if you’re a Trojan fan. While we’re not able to watch the conditioning workouts when the coaches are on the field, the players at the finish look like they’re working harder if the sweat-stained workout gear on this relatively cool morning is any indicator.
The additional running at the end, something we haven’t seen before for the whole group, is another plus.
So were the 75 players involved as the entire defense and the O-line worked on their own thing before the most extensive 11-on-11 that we’ve ever seen in summer workouts.
Overall, you saw a team that seems more mature, more experienced than in recent years, and yet looks and sounds younger. It’s both, really. Might be a sign of the numbers. More young players have experience because they had to play. And now here we are.
One other obvious conclusion from the first practice. More numbers, more talent equals more competition. It’s the mother’s milk of building a great program. There’s a lot of that. And a great deal of carryover of the daily end-of-practice offense-vs.-defense final plays from the spring.
To be able to run as much 11 on 11 as they did says this team is further along in its understanding of the playbook than we’ve seen at this time of year since the heyday days, certainly in the last half-dozen seasons. And with two new quarterbacks. That can’t be a bad thing.
In years past, the only man coverage we saw would come in the one-on-one, mano-a-mano stuff that was mostly just for summer fun at the end of the workouts. It wasn’t going to happen in real games. This time it is.
Two newcomers to the secondary jumped out here – former wide receiver Ajene Harris, after his redshirt season following double hip surgery, and Long Beach Poly alum, Jack Jones, in his first-ever USC workout. Harris has clearly found a home with his two picks, one a pick-six.
As to Jones, who isn’t enrolled in summer school yet and unable to take part in the coaches-run conditioning, he's quicker from here to there than any Trojan we’ve seen – certainly on defense. Adoree’ Jackson, getting ready for the NCAA long jump in Eugene the rest of the week, has power, speed, explosiveness and escapability.
But Jones, with his two picks, one an acrobatic, onehanded fingertip grab running easily, and the other on an explosive start and sprint past a receiver to the ball, has a long-striding, light-footed ability and body control to get where he needs to be that says this team will be able to challenge pass offenses in ways we haven’t seen.
There’s depth on the O-line also unseen around these parts for years. A couple of the guys are slimmer and trimmer with the 6-foot-9 Zach Banner down 30 pounds from the Holiday Bowl to 350 on the way to 320, we’re told, and Damien Mama is down more than 50 pounds.
Going the other way, 6-7 Chad Wheeler who seems bookended with Banner at tackle on the left side, looks like his new weight has held at 310 or so. It’s a start for the seniors on both ends of an O-line that may be literally growing up before our eyes.
There were the healthy looking rehabbers like freshman wide receiver Michael Pittman and senior DB Chris Hawkins, back from mostly missing spring and working in all the team stuff. John Plattenburg, too, with the big hit of the day.
And linebacker Cameron Smith, with a brace on his surgically repaired knee, was doing the conditioning with Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers although none were going with the team stuff. Rehabbing on sideline bikes were Iman Marshall, Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Oluwole Betiku, in a boot as he did.
Not bad for a start when you remember the warnings that many of these players would not be back by now.
Freshman Josh Imatrobhebhe and Pittman are big, strong athletic wide receivers who had good days on a day when Deontay Burnett and Isaac Whitney also had big TD plays.
But on balance, JuJu Smith-Schuster had, as he so often does, the best day of the bunch while doing a great deal of coaching and commentary.
We’re not going to get all that much here from the defensive front seven – especially the D-line – in these sessions. We did see Chuma Edoga, in the three-way mix all spring at offensive tackle, lining up a bit on the D-line. How serious that is we can’t know without the ability to talk to the players until July.
It’s the one mystery that will endure through the summer that most needs answering without any possible way to answer it. Which is why so much else that’s happening here does.
Might as well finish up where these throwing sessions start, with the throwers -- quarterbacks Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Both of them threw it well -- long and short. Mostly on the money. Max is the veteran clearly in charge and running with the ones and looking like it. A thicker-looking Sam is the bigger, stronger athletic version of himself from the spring, scrambling and hustling around and making plays.
Nothing new there.
Not a USCFootball.com member? Sign up now and you'll get a seven day FREE trial! Join the Peristyle Family and get all the great information from USC football practices, Trojan football games, access to the Peristyle and all of the premium recruiting updates on USCFootball.com! Become a member today!