Gerard Martinez |

For the offense, a time to run the ball

There comes a time when a team has to run the football. For this USC team, that time was Saturday, the first day in shoulder pads.

It was clearly a close call. Name Saturday's outstanding player, Clay Helton was asked.

Long pause. He'd already praised tailbacks Justin Davis and Ronald Jones for the way they ran the ball today, quick, inside and instinctive. "Saw some good things out of Justin and Ronald," he said.

But who stood out on this day?

How about "the first offensive line,"Clay said of the strong finish. "I'm partial to the team run . . . " and in the team run, this team was able to run it against a defense that had been coming at them hard the first two days when the team "was in our underwear," Clay said of the padless Thursday and Friday. This was football.

"I could see Coach [Neil] Callaway and Coach [Kenechi] Udeze foaming at the mouth" to get it on," Clay said. And so they did in an early-evening backyard battle.

"One thing is really clear," Clay said, "one thing that hits me is this team has depth."

It also has a way of not shooting itself in the foot. No jumping offside or going in motion early. No putting the ball on the ground. Just ball. Not looking like a team that's been near the bottom of the NCAA and Pac-12 penalty lists in recent seasons. Clay thinks he knows why.

"Start with two senior offensive tackles (Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler) and then look at the three juniors inside them Viane Talamaivao, Chris Brown and/or Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn and/or Nico Falah. And don't think it's either one with the edge at center. Clay doesn't.

"As pleased as i am with Toa, I'm just as pleased with Nico," Clay says, looking at how for Falah has come since his first year here. There are two offensive lines and almost all veterans, Clay said, with 6-foot-6, 325-pound Georgian E.J. Price the lone freshman. "When he knows what to do, you can see how he can play," Clay says.

But this team looks like it already knows what it wants to do. "They played clean," Clay said. "A lot of that is on the quarterbacks for getting it down the way they have."

Same for the running backs. Justin and Ronald weren't alone. Aca'Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis each had quick bursts inside tackle for big gains. Hadn't seen Dominic hit it up in there like that last fall.

One thing that's helping the execution here this year, Clay says, is the depth that allows a veteran to go really hard three plays and then let a younger guy take over.

But then there's this. Having a defense come after you every play with talent like Porter Gustin against Chad and Adoree' Jackson against JuJu can't do anything but help guys on both sides of the ball get better. That whole best-going-against-the-best thing that sustained Pete Carroll's teams.

That notion that if Monday to Friday was tough enough, Saturday's game day would be easier.

When you're "working on pad level or angles or hat placement," Clay said, "that's what wins football games," then doing all those things against the most challenging competitors on your own team is the way to get it done.

That really hasn't been the case in recent years here for all sorts of reasons. And now it is, or is moving in that direction.  

Saturday footnoted

Clay said he likes the job Tyson [Helton] has been doing in getting the quarterbacks to scramble. Said that's "a natural for Sam but I saw Max run it up in there for 15 yards the fastest I've ever seen him run." . . . Ykili Ross "had a great summer," Clay said of the 6-foot, 200-pound redshirt freshman coming on strong at safety. Clancy is very pleased with him. He's climbing the ladder and putting it on tape." . . . Saturday's injuries had JuJu Smith-Schuster coming back after X-rays with no observable issue allowing him to practice and do all the individual and non-contact drills before being held out of the team contact stuff as a precaution that might extend a couple more days . . . While DB Keyshawn "Pie" Young (shoulder), WR Jalen Greene (hamstring) and Quinton Powell (calf) were all back and full-go . . . Saturday injuries included Max Browne getting his left ankle stepped on and missing a couple of plays before finishing up fine . . . TE Tyler Petite banged his shoulder but played through it to the finish . . . and Chris Hawkins was pulled with a hamstring issue . . .

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