Day one of spring football began for USC Tuesday, and while there are only five newcomers to the roster, three of those players come in at positions of need.
Only junior linebacker Cameron Smith, senior safety Chris Hawkins, sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett were allowed to address the media after practice Tuesday.
Of that group, Smith is mentoring freshman inside linebacker Tayler Katoa. A former four-star linebacker from Layton (Utah), Katoa didn’t play the linebacker position in high school until the later part of his junior season. He didn’t play middle linebacker until his senior year.
Tuesday, he made his presence known with a pass deflection which turned into an interception in 7-on-7 drills. Playing behind Smith, Katoa steps into a changing culture at USC.
“In terms of the little things… discipline, and guys who want to be here for the team, want to win and want to make people proud, that’s a huge thing with our team right now,” said Smith. “I’m not saying it’s better or worse, I’m saying it’s different. It’s more competitive.
“It’s just how guys show up every day,” Smith continued. “They want to be here, they want to compete. Whether it be in special teams drills or whatever bring it out, people was to win. They’re showing up on time and are ready to be here. They want to compete and they’re giving it their all. There’s no moaning, no crying… Everyone just wants to get better every day.
This fall, USC is expected to reach their 85 scholarship limit without the addition of numerous walk-ons scholarship offers for the first time since sanctions. Before reinforcements arrive, Katoa, defensive tackle Marlon Tuipolutu, offensive tackle Andrew Vorhees, long snapper Damon Johnson and quarterback Jack Sears enrolled in January to participate in spring football.
Smith is taking Katoa under his wing.
“Today was the first day we've seen him play, but he’s been with us lifting hard,” said Smith. “He’s shown up and really focused on doing the right things.
“He’s doing what every mid-year should do. We saw him today and he was kind of running around with his head on a swivel. He didn’t know much about what he was doing, but that’s why it’s good that he's here now.
“I reached out to him and told him, ‘This defense is not easy to learn.’ I’ll be the first one to say that. But I’m here whenever (to answer questions). He has a lot to learn, but he’s athletic and he wants to do well.
News and notes from practice:
Linebacker Tayler Katoa is listed by USC as 6-foot-2, 220-pounds, but appears to a good deal bigger than that wearing Chris Gallipo's old No. 54. Katoa had several good plays in space Tuesday despite being completely new to the defensive scheme. His deflected pass turned interception came in 7-on-7 drills as he took a shallow drop in the middle of the field. Katoa read the quarterback and jumped to hit the ball in the air. Katoa lined up with Jordan Iosefa for all of his reps.
Jack Sears first snap of practice was a fumbled snap out of the shotgun. An inauspicious start, Sears also had a couple of bounce passes Tuesday. While it wasn’t the greatest start to his career as a Trojan, Sears had several moments where he showed off his arm strength and had made some good throws.
Several new numbers graced Howard Jones Field Tuesday. Isaiah Langley is now wearing No. 24, while Ykili Ross switched to No. 14 and Steven Mitchell switched to No. 4. Mitchell was limited in drills as he recovers from ACL surgery.
Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu got a good amount of early second team reps with the defense Tuesday. Tuipulotu showed his strength in the middle against the run, but had a harder time getting push on his pass rush. He spent most of Tuesday playing behind Josh Fatu.
Hawkins 2017 signees Joseph Lewis and Greg Johnson both attended practice Tuesday. Lewis shadowed the wide receivers while Johnson shadowed the defensive backs.
Speaking of defensive backs, while redshirt freshman Jamel Cook isn't new to the team, he is getting a lot more reps this spring than he did in fall camp. After breaking his foot in an auto accident last summer, Cook was limited in practice for much of the season. Cook played predominately over the slot Tuesday and had more pass break-ups than any other defensive back on the team. In short, he looked very good.
On the offensive line, freshman Andrew Vorhees sported the No. 72 playing right tackle in practice. Vohrees has the versatility to play tackle or guard and figures to fit into the Trojans offensive line rotation the same way Chris Brown has.