What was not to like about Saturday morning's first spring practice in pads?
Fantastic weather. Big crowd. Who were all those people? [Our Gerard Martinez breaks down some of those of the most interest here].
And a chance to put on the pads and do some hitting more than two months after the Rose Bowl, the game that USC has erased from their memory banks. Because it's not about then, it's about now. And next.
Now came in a spirited session that focused on the mundane details of form tackling,one shoulder then the other, wrapping and centering. And ball security. And route-running. And finishing the third-down install so that when they return after Spring Break, they'll be fully ready to review where they are and move on.
Which is light years ahead of where they were this time last year. They're younger, deeper, quicker and in some ways, more experienced despite all the youth. And from the sound of things, having fun playing football again. and to celebrate, they even had some Pac-12 officials to make it -- well -- official.
We're speculating a bit there. Only Clay Helton was available to the media after practice. But he had lots to say about lots of his guys.
*** Looking for the next AJ: After two practices trying to find someone to catch punts and kickoffs, the emphasis changed to the return part of the equation. USC has been spoiled the last three years, Clay said, with an Adoree' Jackson who could do both at both return spots -- do the "dancing" with punts and the "straight-ahead" run-backs with kickoffs. Now the hunt is on for the next man, or men, to step in there. Jack Jones has the flair and the burst and that no-fear attitude and showed it against full-speed coverage. Deontay Burnett has the hands and the cool composure. Velus Jones, playing through a groin pull that had Clay praising his toughness, has a bit of both. They're going to work on this part of their game every day, Clay says. Good idea.
*** Skill position versatility: The thing that helps the search, Clay says, is having guys who can go both ways, something Jack Jones is about to get a chance to do Week 3 of spring when he, like Adoree', gets to switch over to offense for a bit. "Velus has a knack," Clay says. And Pie Young will get his chance at wide receiver.
*** Ditto for the O-line?: USC "recruits for versatility there," Clay says ticking off the names of three young players going at multiple spots with one of them, a good-looking early entry freshman, Andrew Vorhees, whose No. 72 and 6-foot-6, 295-pound frame do not look like he should be headed to the Senior Prom. He's going at both guard and tackle. Redshirt freshman Frank Martin (6-5, 310) is working at center along with guard. And redshirt sophomore Roy Hemsley (6-5, 315), who is going with the ones at right tackle, is also working at guard. "Multiple positions," Clay says. Not like last season when the veterans were pretty much locked in at one spot. This is the way it's going forward, Clay says, with USC's recruiting.
*** What about the new guys?: We asked about one, Vorhees, and got an answer about all five. "All five guys," Clay said, have shown up serious as heck with a sense of "want to," They're prepared and they seem to be getting it -- from long-snapper Damon Johnson to quarterback Jack Sears to inside linebacker Tayler Katoa to D-lineman Marlon Tuipulotu, who Clay says "doesn't look like a freshman." He's 305 now, up from the 295 in the media guide. It's the physical part of Marlon that Clay has noticed. But defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast reports of Tuipulotu that he's been impressed with "how instinctive he is and how fast he's catching on."
*** Looking like Sam?: Redshirt freshman Matt Fink, who's getting lots of reps, has one quality that reminds Clay of Sam Darnold, he says. "It's his creativity," Clay says of the redshirt freshman's increasing ability to make plays down the field since he's not distracted by the pass rush and keeps his eyes down the field and avoids it without focusing on it.
USC takes off next week for Spring Break then returns for three practices the following week with both the offense and defense installed, Helton said, and after reviewing both Tuesday and Thursday of that week should be ready for the first scrimmage of spring -- Saturday, March 25 . . . Pro Day is Wednesday, March 22 . . . Some updates on the injury situation: Josh Imatorbhebhe does not have an injury that's been keeping him out the first week of practice but an illness, Clay said, and he was joined on the sidelines by his brother, Daniel, who has a minor shoulder problem. Jalen Greene had a little bit of a hamstring and Clay said he expects Trevon Sidney, who had one hip cartilage surgery done and then a second, to be ready for fall camp. . . For more-play-by-play on practice, check out Saturday's Spring Ball Day 3 Ghost Notes: http://www.scout.com/college/usc/forums/1017-the-peristyle/15449351-spring-saturday-day-3-ghost-notes.