Gerard Martinez |

Competing like crazy

Not in full pads yet in Practice 4, USC's Trojans went after one another as if they didn't realize they were still in shorts and shoulder pads Sunday. Some kind of fun as Damien Mama puts a big smile on Clay Helton's face before Sunday's practice.

It was the big story out of the spring, how Chris Brown had focused and fought and found a way with the new coaches watching to put himself on the first team offensive line at left guard. Just like that.

Competed like crazy and jumped ahead of two-year starter Damien Mama, listed on the Outland Award Watch List for interior linemen going into this season. Just like that. Competition does wonders when it's focused like that.

And Chris has been running first all summer and the first few days of Fall Camp. And then Clay Helton took another look at it Sunday and said: "Nobody's won that job yet," although "Chris is doing a really great job after a tremendous spring." But he's done something else.

"He's lit a fire under Damien," Helton said with a grin and a story of one of the Red Zone plays where the call was for an outside power run, Clay said, and Damien ran by and told him "this one's for you" before pulling and clearing out a linebacker on the front end of an Aca'Cedric Ware TD run through the Zach Banner-Mama-created seam.

The "dropoff in focus from the spring" is gone, Helton says. That fire is back. But it's not just there. "The two quarterbacks just put on a clinic," Helton said of the Red Zone work that had each of them -- Max Browne and Sam Darnold -- going to their bag of tricks and getting it done in different ways with different people.

They weren't perfect. The defense wouldn't let them be. A blitzing  Quinton Powell just erased Ware one time before he got started, as did nose tackle Steve Tu'ikolavatu as the Utah graduate transfer was getting his first really extended action. One quick, the other strong. Both effective.

"He's a really strong guy," Brown said. "He's helping me to get better. We really haven't had anybody quite like him."

And still, "the run game's going well," Brown said. "Our running backs are tough and physical. And the O-line is just playing better as a group."

One part of that, said Tyson Helton on the way this team has picked up the offense "seamlessly" is the word used here -- thanks to the way he can translate exactly what Neil Callaway, his compadre for the past two years in Western Kentucky's cutting-edge offense, is teaching to offensive coordinator Tee Martin so that everybody is on the same page. According to Tyson, Tee has worked hard to make the transition as verbally clear and less complex for guys familiar with last year's offense.

There's one difference at USC, Tyson said. There's a whole lot more talent here. At Western, a few guys might be the kind of first-line talent headed to the NFL, At USC, "the talent here is a lot better overall," with a lot of these guys moving on, Tyson said.

That's why Tommie Robinson was assuring questioners that he thought he could get five running backs ready to play, the same as he did when he was here in 2013. "That's my job," he said. So that would include freshman Vavae Malepeai? "He's done a great job," Tommie said. "He's a good player but we'll see, he's not there yet."

But if he'll just ask Chris Brown, or Damien Mama, and keeps on competing, he'll have a chance to be there.

"We're going to have to have multiple backs," Clay said. Of Vavae, "29," Clay calls him. He has "mental maturity. He's really picking up the system."  

Sunday footnoted

Sunday injury report had RB Justin Davis held out with hip and knee bruising, S Chris Hawkins with a hamstring, DT Khaliel Rodgers with concussion protocol and DT Noah Jefferson, in pads for the first time, doing some special exercises for his back with strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton and trainer Russ Romano . . . "Just bumps and bruises," Clay said. Nothing serious . . . Monday's practice is at the Coliseum at 5 . . . It's open to the public . . . Three big emphases: 1) first time in full pads, 2) get the young guys a chance to play in the big stadium, and 3) get to work on proper tackling technique making use of the Seattle Seahawks' rugby style tackling. " It's a lot different now with all the safety issues," said Clay after watching the Seahawks' tackling video, something USC will be teaching Monday. "It's a part of it," Clay said, "which hip to attack, a low pad level, getting your hat on the football." . . . Tight end Taylor McNamara said he's now up to 255 compared to the 240 he played at last year and maybe a tad over 6-5 . . . Said "with the whole new staff here now, the culture is really changing . . .  the focus is on discipline and details . . . if you add getting all the little things right up, it all adds up to wins."

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