It was Practice No. 6 on Fall Camp Day No. 7 after the first day off Tuesday. But the second straight day of tackling for USC's fully-padded Trojans, more than on Monday at the Coliseum, when it was mostly "thud" and not take them all the way to the ground.
Wednesday, they went to the ground. And came hard with a defense making life none too comfortable on an offense that needs to know the feeling when Sept. 3 rolls around and the Tide rolls in.
So forget the service teams. Their time will come later in game week prep. And with the added depth, they'll be fine. And more athletic than in recent years. But this, contrary to what was the first word about Fall Camp, is about getting ready for a team like Alabama.
"Considering the opponent we play," Helton said. 'Nuff said.
And as those good USC teams a decade ago proved, the best way to be ready to play Game 1 is to play in practice like it is Game 1. So now, "It's JuJu [Smith-Schuster] against Adoree' [Jackson]," says Clay Helton, making it clear he knows what awaits USC in Texas.
But on a day when they worked against "blitz situations," Helton said, and on "the two-minute drill and Hail Mary's and chunk plays to get yards to set up field goals and the Red Zone" and watched "Matty" [Boermeester] nail a "game-winning field goal from 45 yards out," they were asked to perform under pressure. Boermeester's accuracy improvement has been especially noticeable.
And perform they did, some of the time. Not that all the ones and twos were here for a workout that combined with the scrimmaging Monday would seem to have USC past the first of three scrimmages this fall. Not that everybody was here but JuJu scored on a second-effort lunging 30-yard TD grab from Sam Darnold that didn't look like either his toe or his pinkie was bothering him even if he did it on a heavily-taped right foot.
Nose tackle Khaliel Rodgers was back although sophomore DT Noah Jefferson remains out. His MRI is negative but he's seeing a back specialist. Veteran DBs Chris Hawkins (hamstring) and John Plattenburg (concussion) were out and sophomore safety Marvell Tell hit the trainer's table at the end with a tweaked hamstring. Just to be safe, Clay said, they sat him. No biggie.
But Biggie Marshall had his moment for the defense, reading a slightly late out pattern for the day's lone pick against Max Browne, whose 11 of 21 passing was the result of some drops and lots of hurries -- especially against the first group. But he did scamper in for a five-yard TD that may have been whistled dead but shouldn't have been by the Pac-12 crew.
Darnold was more accurate, 15 of 21, and had a longer TD scramble from inside the 10 on top of his TD pass with no interceptions. Browne was 11 of 21 with one TD pass. Both quarterbacks, who flipped back and forth between the ones and twos, were limited a bit by missing personnel. Left OT Chad Wheeler is still limited to individual work with plantar fasciitis and RB Justin Davis is almost but not quite back from some hip and knee bumps and bruises.
Most limited is freshman RB Vavae Malepeai, who has showed some real promise, who broke his left scapula Monday and will be out six to eight weeks -- but no surgery, Helton said.
"With the quality opponents we play," Helton said, ticking off some of the names -- "Notre Dame, Utah, Alabama" -- well, Clay explained, it helps "when the man across from you is as good as you are."
At the start, with the way Clancy Pendergast's first defense was bringing it, it looked like they were better -- faster, certainly, more aggressive. Max took the brunt of it from the likes of Porter Gustin and even a blitzing Tell as they dialed up the blitzes for this test time.
But there are ways to compete against that look -- and an Alabama. "Tempo," Clay says, praising Tee Martin for the way they're using it early in their "Start fast" part of practice when the offense goes as fast as it can. Against the Alabamas and Stanfords, this could be the way the Trojans go, Clay says.
They'll have to do it with more precision than Wednesday, which they almost certainly will. Two snaps rattled around Sam's feet and he never did get the handle on them. And there was that dropped pick-six that would have made this a less successful day.
As for Max, he seemed to be pushed to a faster place than he was quite ready to go. "I'm going to wait on the tape," Clay said, not venturing a quick pick on who the QB of the day was. He did say he really likes "their willingness to compete, they're making the most of it . . . but they're by far not perfect," he said -- with these individual pieces of advice.
For Sam, the watchwords are "getting a little more consistent" after typical Days 1 and 2 for a redshirt freshman followed by solid Days 3 and 4 and then a strong day at the Coliseum Monday.
For Max, "I've been encouraging Max to take his shots," Helton said even if the defense didn't let him get many comfortable looks.
FOOTNOTED WEDNESDAY: Clay said he felt very good about the team's grades. "We finished yesterday," he said, "and should be good to go," but he wanted to have it official when he lets us know on Thursday . . . also making Clay smile, he says, is how "accountable" Clancy is holding his defense and if they get an assignment or technique wrong, they're out of there and someone else comes on. "Clancy's challenging them . . . you don't do your job and you come out and another guy is in." . . . Trojans practice at 3 again Thursday on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields.
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