Fall camp is upon us with USC getting going this afternoon at Howard Jones Field.
With 14 of the practices being open to the public, head coach Clay Helton is allowing the fans to come out and get a first-hand look at how the Trojans are shaping up as they prepare for the nation’s toughest schedule that begins with a Dallas matchup against the defending national champions, Alabama.
Here’s 10 things to watch during USC’s fall camp:
1. QB competition
The one position everyone will be tracking each day is the man behind the center. Redshirt junior Max Browne has admitted that he initially envisioned himself being done with college football by now. He anticipated a three-and-out career. Instead, he never could leapfrog incumbent Cody Kessler and now when the job appears lined up to be his, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has risen to challenge him.
Darnold had a sublime spring, keeping Browne from winning the job outright in the spring. However, Darnold also did a lot of his damage picking on a second-team secondary that was pieced together with walk-ons due to multiple defensive backs being out this spring. While Browne has been a team leader throughout the summer, Darnold brings a different element to the table with his mobility and escapability. Browne is the veteran and has played like it during the summer, but Darnold has a bit of the x-factor that can tantalize a coaching staff.
Unfortunately, there’s almost always a significant injury during fall camp as the coaching staff tries to instill the toughness that is required to win games. Every practice brings the inherent risk of an injury, but that risk is multiplied in full-pad practices. Last year, USC cornerback Kevon Seymour suffered a knee injury that completely altered his senior year. The Trojans lost their only veteran defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow in the spring to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. They avoided any season-ending injuries in the summer. Can the Trojans avoid the injury bug in the fall as well?
Some players will be returning from injuries. How will guys like sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith (pictured) be able to perform after missing nine months? Smith was going full bore during team conditioning at the end of the summer, but being in pads and going sideline to sideline is a completely different beast. Oluwole Betiku was in a boot for most of the summer, but has been spotted without it recently. Is he healed and ready to try to be a terror off the edge?
Speaking of shaking off the rust…Adoree' Jackson was out of football for seven months. While guys like Smith and Betiku were still involved in meetings and being around the team, Jackson only had the time to occasionally pop his head in or borrow a teammates iPad to go over the playbook. He had his sights set on Olympic gold in Rio, but fell short in his bid to make the Olympic team in the long jump.
The coaching staff has deemed it best for Jackson to focus his efforts on the defensive side of the ball rather than splitting time on offense in practice. With one area to concentrate his attention, how quickly can Jackson get back up to speed and hopefully begin to make some advancements with his cornerback play after seeming to have plateaued last season?
5. Defensive line
With five senior defensive lineman departed, Bigelow injured and Scott Felix suspended for the year, the front line of the defense is a huge question mark. Joel Klatt called the group a “wet paper bag” and said that Alabama will run for 300 yards. With so many departures, USC rightfully went out and got some reinforcements, signing Betiku, Connor Murphy, Liam Jimmons and junior college transfer Josh Fatu. The Trojans also added Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who will officially join the team after today’s practice, and athletic offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers flipped to the defensive side of the ball.
The 25-year-old Tu’ikolovatu gives the group an older veteran to look up to, but how will the group mesh? Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu have had strong offseason from the outside linebacker positions while Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson and Jacob Daniel are a trio of talented sophomores, but their game experience is somewhat limited. Are they ready to step in and fill the void? Rodgers could be the x-factor if he can quickly get up to speed after just a month of summer tutoring from his teammates.
Every year there are a handful of freshmen that become significant contributors, but it isn’t always who you might expect. Sure we expect Jack Jones (pictured) will be able to step in and have some sort of role by the time the calendar flips to September, but what other freshmen will also find a role on Saturdays this season. Cam Smith was essentially the forgotten guy in the monstrous 2015 linebacker class behind Gustin, Osa Masina and John Houston Jr. Yet, he was the Trojans leading tackler in the middle of the defense before tearing a knee ligament against Colorado.
7. Who will be No. 2?
One position where a freshman or two could make an impact is at wide receiver. The Trojans return a slew of veterans, but no one has established themselves as a reliable target behind All-American JuJu Smith-Schuster. The candidates are plentiful: senior Darreus Rogers has perhaps the best hands on the team but has lacked the consistency to make all the easy catches as well, Steven Mitchell Jr. has become a 5-foot-10 solid rock but he struggled to be on the same page with Kessler last season, De’Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney have looked much better this offseason after a year of little production following their transfer from junior college, Jalen Greene has done more swapping of uniforms than a Quick Change artist flipping back and forth from quarterback to receiver multiple times.
But if the older players are ready for the spotlight, maybe it will be one of the uber-talented youngsters USC has brought in. Deontay Burnett came out of nowhere to make 10 catches for 161 yards as a true freshman while the Trojans recruited the top receiving corps in the country — Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman were both five stars while four-star Josh Imatorbhebhe has the work ethic and athleticism to become a star, Trevon Sidney could compete with Rogers in the best hands competition and Velus Jones Jr. has a chance to be a burner in the slot.
8. Special teams
John Baxter is back! But there are plenty of special teams questions. What all is he bringing back with him? Will we be enduring the ‘swinging gate’ extra-point formations again? Who will be returning kicks alongside Adoree’ Jackson? Is USC moving to the rugby-style punting? Can anyone make a field goal?
Who will be lining up to kick field goals and extra points in Dallas is the most underrated position battle this fall. After Alex Wood left the program after graduating, despite still having eligibility, the original blueshirt Matt Boermeester has the upper hand. He has a Jason Elam leg, but he doesn’t always know where the ball is going. The next blueshirt kicker, 6-foot-2 Michael Brown, will be joining the team today. He has a strong leg and the Temecula (Calif.) Linfield Christian product one of the top kicking prospects, according to the Chris Sailer Kicking Academy.
9. Battle of the big boys
The offensive line has seven players that have been in the program at least three years and seven players that have started multiple games in their career. Add in gifted sophomore Chuma Edoga (pictured) and senior Jordan Simmons, who is back on the offensive side of the ball and finally healthy, and the offensive line is absolutely stacked with talent and depth. But unless USC decides to run some Stanford offensive sets, there’s only going to be room for five linemen on the field.
Neil Callaway is an envious position, but has a tough task. How will he assemble his five-man squad? Besides Zach Banner being in the lineup, the other four positions seem to be up for grabs. With Banner being able to play either tackle position, it is up to Chad Wheeler at left tackle and Edoga at right tackle to battle each other for the other tackle spot. Nico Falah has been running with the first team at center throughout the offseason, but Toa Lobendahn is getting back to 100 percent after his torn anterior cruciate ligament. If Callaway chooses Falah at center, the versatile Lobendahn could be thrown into the ultra-competitive guard battle with Simmons, Chris Brown, Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and possibly even Jordan Austin.
10. Naming starters
Clay Helton has said he will unveil a depth chart two weeks prior to the game against Alabama. That’s when we’ll know who has won each of the position battles. But is that two weeks long enough to establish the cohesion that is necessary for a team to be running full throttle when it hits the field for opening kickoff? It’s more likely that we’ll start to have an idea of who is going to be starting by the number of reps certain players get with each other as the fall camp progresses.
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