Gerard Martinez |

Back in business

Back at it after Spring Break, USC fought through a practice-long rain Tuesday with the focus on the receiving corps and a defense creating turnovers.

"We always like to say we're 'LA kids,' " Tee Martin was saying of speedy redshirt freshman wide receiver Velus Jones, the pride of Saraland, Ala., who has been lighting up spring practice the first two weeks.

"Lower Alabama," Mobile-native Tee dead-panned describing where the two of them find themselves these days. From one LA to the other.

On a rainy day and after a competitive practice in partial pads, the talk was more of the young wide receivers -- and the guys who turned them over like Jamel Cook, who had three interceptions at his new nickel slot cover position.

A matchup made in SEC country for the second-year speedsters, both redshirt freshmen with Miamian Cook having missed camp with a broken foot last summer).

"How neat was it to see him do that?" Clay Helton said in genuine enthusiasm at Cook on defense doing exactly what the USC coaches have been emphasizing to turn the aggressive quickness Clancy Pendergast preaches into more takeaways.

As the third straight USC head coach who comes from an offensive coordinator's mindset, Clay is the first one who can say he's thrilled at seeing his offense get turned over and mean it. Because the defense (Cameron Smith and Jack Jones also had interceptions) was all over the three quarterbacks today -- including Sam Darnold who contributed two of those.

The ability of the 6-foot-4 Cook to play man defense while offering strong run support has helped in making the decision to move him to the nickel spot with Ajene Harris. "We know he can play safety," Clay said.

And after today, they know he can play the ball in the air. "He's a talented kid," Clay said.

But right there is Velus, who was trying out for the return man on punts, kickoffs and both the deep and quick inside threat in the passing game. "And we can hand him the ball," Clay said of the flanker reverses he's already run.

"He won't dance around," Clay was saying of his kickoff returns. "What stands out is his speed . . . he doesn't dance around on his kickoff returns . . . he has a knack for pulling the trigger."

And for getting deep. Twice he beat double coverage -- one for an easy 30-yard TD from Darnold, the other he pulled in against double coverage just as he stepped on the sideline in the end zone. And a third, on a quick-hitter in the seam from Darnold on a quick play-action TD where he beat the safety and corner to the spot and didn't slow down.

 "He has the talent to be that kind of guy," Tee says of Velus' game-changing ability. "He's really fast. And he's been really consistent. A super-talented guy. But he's not there yet."

But he could be. Although as much as Tee is pleased where the 6-foot, 185-pounder has taken himself on the football field. It's his adjustment in the classroom, in the team room and the locker room that means just as much.

"We've got a lot of talent and a ways to go," Tee says of his young WR group. Only Michael Pittman played there among the freshmen even though special teamer Velus "was in the room," Tee says. Pittman, however, was on the field as JuJu Smith-Schuster's backup. "He'll play that spot," Tee says of the 6-4, 215-pounder.

But the guy earning a great deal of praise has been a veteran, Jalen Greene, who will pay no attention to quarterback this year. "He's gotten much better," Tee says, playing just one position. Although Clay says they will not forget that he can throw the flanker pass.

"We need every one of them and we need them to show it in practice," Tee says. "They just haven't played."

The group was expanded by two Tuesday when redshirt freshman Josh Imatorbhebhe returned from an illness and Pie Young moved over to offense, his primary position in high school when USC recruited him. "No big deal, Josh says of the fact that both have No. 17 in cardinal now. That'll work itself out.

But the switch indicates that the coaches think, because of the numbers and experience, the secondary is in better shape than the wide receivers.

Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe agreed. With the wide receivers not there yet and the three-man tight end group ready to roll, "this offense is really evolving . . . me and Ty Petite) are pretty comfortable," Daniel says. "We're stretching the field with the tight ends. It's pretty amazing."

For Clay, what has been a revelation at tight end is 6-7 redshirt freshman Cary Angeline, who they realized had a big frame "but I didn't realize how fast he was," he said. 


Practice ended after a pair of scuffles that started with OT Roy Hemsley and OLB Uchenna Nwosu squaring off and then after that quieted down, OT Chuma Edoga took up again for the offense with safety Chris Hawkins stepping in for the defense on the second go-round that resulted in five minutes of full-team up-downs. No hard feelings, just a message that you can be "ultra-competitive" but not stupid and do something that will hurt the whole team in a game . . . USC will do two days of review this week pointing to Saturday's 10 a.m. first spring scrimmage . . . Rained throughout the Tuesday practice in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts . . . Pro Day is Wednesday morning and closed to the public . . . Some updates on the injury situation: Back for part-time work Tuesday were OLB Porter Gustin (hand surgery) and center Nico Falah (back) . . . For more-play-by-play on practice, check out Tuesday Spring Ball Day 4 Ghost Notes:

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

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