Gerard Martinez |

What to look for . . . Here's our spring list

Looking at the rest of spring through the eyes of those who care about the Trojans and hope to see answers from this USC team as wide receivers Deontay Burnett, left, and Velus Jones work on some one-on-one stuff above.

Now we've seen them. Just one practice. Fourteen more to go this spring starting Thursday afternoon.

And as Clay Helton noted Tuesday, 29 more in the fall after a summer of PRP's (player run practices).

That would seem to be enough to get this USC team into the "national championship" mode Clay & Co., as well as AD Lynn Swann, have been talking about. If that is, these Trojans have the stuff of which championships are made.

But what is it all of us watching this play out -- the coaches, the players themselves, Trojan fans and media -- should be looking for? What will tell us if there's enough there there for that talk to make sense?

Start with what Clay called for -- leadership? Who are they? How do they step up?

While Sam Darnold, where let's face it, everything starts on this team and not just the snap count, is working on being more vocal as a correcting communicator and a signal that he's no longer a redshirt freshman, Sam is only the most obvious candidate,

"He's working on it," says Deontay Burnett who said as much about how he's doing this in his own quiet way. No, he doesn't need to be THE go-to guy at wide receiver despite that record-breaking Rose Bowl performance.

"It's not my turn, it's everybody's turn," Tay says. "We're going to need everybody if we plan to win a national championship."

That's powerful stuff. This isn't about me, according to Tay, but about everybody here.

The talk was not "This is how we practice" or "how we want to practice" but how these USC players and coaches think as a program.

That practice talk was for last September. They've figured it out. No distractions. No need for a deejay or loudspeakers. This isn't a dance party. Not any more. Just serious work going on here.

That's what you can do when you have "nine out of 10 coaches back," Clay says, and no one has to start over from Square 1. From that standpoint, this team is ahead of where it was going into the Alabama game. And the Utah State and Stanford games as well, last September. And it's only March.

So they are ahead of the game. And as Kirk Herbstreit said the other day when asked about including USC as one of his early College Football Playoff candidates, they're also "hungry."

So maybe more than any one position analysis -- quarterback excepted of course -- is an attitude analysis. Last year, even with all those veterans, this USC team was trying to find itself. Did they belong on the field with Alabama? Not in September, of course.

In January, maybe. But it's not just about belonging on the field with people, it's about beating them.

And figuring out how to do so from Day 1, something that looks like it's happening.

Now on to the details after getting the attitude right and checking that box that also wondered if first-year Clay was the coach to take USC there. The wins at Washington, and the comeback against Penn State, say that from a preparation point of view and a sideline, in-game guy, make the case that Clay has what it takes.

Now what about his players? What should we -- and Clay -- be looking for this spring?

*** Find a backup quarterback: Clay has already told his brother Tyson to get that done. Redshirt freshman Matt Fink and early entry freshman Jack Sears will have the spotlight on them as we all watch to see who is the guy who is "one play away" as they say. How important is the backup quarterback? All you have to do is look at USC last September.

*** Re-think the O-line: From a lumbering veteran group that averaged 321 pounds a man to a younger, and far leaner, one that will be lucky to average 295, this has to become a much more athletic,aggressive, attacking bunch that we'd guess would be Neil Callaway's preference. But it will be different. And that will take some doing with schemes and protections and integration with both the quarterback and the run game. Should be interesting.

*** Get the D-line rotations right: As hard as it may be to believe, but despite the loss of stalwart nose Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, this group may be deeper, more athletic, certainly more experienced up front from the get-go, especially if senior Kenny Bigelow mounts his comeback and Rasheem Green becomes the All-American candidate we think he can be. But we're also including one mature early entry freshman, Marlon Tuipulotu. How do Kenechi Udeze and Clancy Pendergast make these numbers and this youth work?

*** At ILB, introducing John Houston: Nice to have an athletic five-star finally getting his chance after two years overcoming back issues and learning the ropes with the experience and speed to pair up with MLB Cameron Smith. "He's athletic," Smith said o John after Tuesday's practice. "He knows his stuff. I'm excited for him." He's not the only one. And if impressive freshman Tayler Katoa can pair up with big-hitting sophomore Jordan Iosefa there, this USC defense could definitely ahead of last year's.

*** Connor and Oluwole, come on down: With edge starters Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu back, and better than their solid 2016 seasons, we're assuming, another position group that could improve immeasurably is on the outside where it's time for the imposing pair of 6-foot-7, more than 260-pound Connor Murphy and 6-3, 250-pound athlete Oluwole Betiku to step up as a sophomore tandem and push the starters in a way that will give Clancy more bodies in a rotation much different from what he went into last year's Utah game with.

*** Next up on the back line: With Adoree', Leon and John Plattenburg gone, there might be more scrambling for spots here than at wide receiver even. So many names. So many players we haven't really seen have an impact despite their potential to step up with -- and push hard -- returnees Iman Marshall, Marvell TellChris Hawkins, Ajene Harris, Matt Lopes and the rehabbing Jonathan Lockett. We're talking Jamel Cook, Pie Young, Isiah Langley, Ykili Ross and C.J. Pollard. You get the picture. That's a lot for Ronnie Bradford to filter through the next 14 workouts so look for this to continue through the fall. Good problem to have considering the alternative.

*** What about the wide receivers?: No JuJu, Darreus, DeQuan and Isaac, no problem if . . . if the young guys who we know can run and jump and catch it show they can physical it up -- handle the hands-on defenders they're likely to see and handle the downfield blocking that means so much for every part of this offense. But it's not all about Michael Pittman, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Tyler Vaugns, Velus Jones and the rehabbing Trevon Sidney, Jalen Greene is a big part of this as a tough-minded veteran leader with rehabbing starter Steven Mitchell. Should be fun to watch this sort itself out.

*** New coach, returning RBs: Can't wait to see how this marriage works out with the new guy in town, Deland McCullough, bringing a terrific resume with him to work with Ronald Jones, who should be ready for a breakout year, tough guy Aca'Cedric Ware, speedy Dominic Davis looking to find his way on to the field with something to do and talented redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai, who we guess will, if only this offense runs enough plays.

*** Three tight ends, one must-do concern: Sure, this trio can catch it. Run good patterns. Get deep down the seam. But how successful can Daniel Imatrobhebhe, Tyler Petite and Cary Angeline be blocking it, That's the pitch for a group where only the exceptionally athletic Daniel is above 240 pounds. As TE coach John Baxter likes to tell them, if you can't block and you think it's all about catching the ball, we can just put another wide receiver in.

*** And finally, find a kicker . . . and a long-snapper, a punt returner and a kickoff returner: OK, so the scholarshippedMichael Brown and Damon Johnson are obviously the choices to replace the departed Matt Boermeester and Zach Smith, but can they really replace them? Spring can probably tell us. But can USC replace Adoree'? They'll have to although no one really can so it's back to the drawing board for Baxter here. And we won't know for certain until September how that goes.

And you have 14 practices to do it.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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