Shotgun Spratling |

When 'pop' is the sound of USC's spring

Trojans show where the program is going in first scrimmage of the spring. And how they're going to get there. On defense. It's the return of a theme. Above, Michael Pittman tries to play through the strong arm of a hidden Iman Marshall.

All you had to do was take a second and look around . . . and listen. The buzz is back.

So many people wanted to attend USC's first spring scrimmage Saturday, they had to relocate the media to accommodate the large group of former USC players who'd RSVP'ed to an invitation from Coach Clay Helton to come by and say "Hi."

Much of the the hype here is from the offense generated in the Trojans' 52-49 win at the buzzer over Penn State in one of the all-time great Rose Bowl comebacks.

But as Clay keeps saying, forget the Rose Bowl. This team has. And from Saturday's scrimmage, it's clear that's how this program is going. Although it may be looking back just a bit.

Because USC doesn't appear to building on that game but on the most solid foundation in all of football -- defense. Just ask Nick Saban -- or Pete Carroll how that works out for you.

Sure, there was Sam Darnold doing Sam Darnold things Saturday. And Ronald Jones, a 205-pound RoJo making a couple of rocket touchdown runs.

And even in their yellow noncontact jerseys, there were Deontay Burnett and Daniel Imatorbhebhe staying out of the scrimmage but making it clear this USC team will have plenty of weapons. Especially when you factor in redshirt freshman Velus Jones, who makes at least one explosive play a day, and second-year guys Michael Pittman and Josh Imatorbhebhe who could be the replacements for physical receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers.

Not a bad start. But that's not where this 2017 USC football team is starting. It's the old formula. "Run the ball and stop the run," Clay said again Saturday after the 70-play scrimmage in not that much more than an hour of practice time.

Not exactly the theme of the Rose Bowl. But the way you win for a long time. Take the other offense out of it. Control the game. Give yourself plenty of chances for Sam & Co. to work it like they did in the Rose Bowl. OK, so maybe it is a little bit about the Rose Bowl and offense and Sam and RoJo.

Just not this spring. This spring is about getting a defense going that will give the USC offense 80 plays a game to do what it does.

It's about getting a running start with guys who all -- except for 305-pound early entry freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu who is working his way onto the field with his size, speed, explosiveness and maturity -- understand what Clancy Pendergast means when he says he wants them to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

It's about watching Uchenna Nwosu playing like a man possessed. Bigger, stronger, faster -- and active. Really active and hitting like a hammer. He can cover you down the field and punch your lights out if you run it at him. He is simply waaaaay better on the edge than he was a year ago -- and he was pretty good then.

He's also setting the tone. This team will hit you. And hit you. As much as the offense pulled people in here Saturday, and showed them what Sam and RoJo and Velus and Michael & Co. are capable of, the "oohs" and "ahhs" went to the defense. And deservedly so.

They're ahead of the offense and way ahead of where they were a year ago this time when Clancy was trying to teach the three levels of defenders to talk to one another and play with one another and take advantage of the other guy on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

"I'm impressed with our defense," Clay said for the second straight day. "They're ahead of our offense."

And then he started ticking them off one name after another starting with "'Chenna," as Clay calls Nwosu, followed by "Cameron, Jordan, Iman, Chris, John" and ending up with . . . who else but 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Jamel Cook, who pulled down his fourth interception of the week Saturday.

No longer is there a question of whether he's going to play or maybe even where, with Clay talking about "the investment" USC is putting into the Miami athlete with his switch to the nickel slot guy thanks to his ability in run support and man-to-man defense. He simply swallows up the smaller wide receivers and can run rings around the tight ends while he can come up and deliver serious hits against the run game.

"You're never happy with three turnovers," Clay said. Unless you think of them as three takeaways. Which is what they were. Guessing we'll hear all year about how last year's team caused just 20 -- less than two a game. So even if they had to give "Chenna" the benefit of the doubt on his diving interception on a deflection to get to three, he's earned it. This defense has earned it.

And this crowd helped. "It allows me to see that reality," Clay said, thanking the folks for turning out. "It feels more game-like."

And of USC, where Clay says he's had a special privilege to coach the last eight seasons at "the greatest place to play college football . . . it's a special family."

A big part of that family, Clay says, is "having Clancy Pendergast back." And his defense.

And having Cam Smith back at the Mike spot and "taking over the quarterback's role on defense communicating" has been a big plus. "We're so much ahead of this time last year." 


Looking at the offense, Saturday was the first time redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai got to show what he could do after missing most of last fall with a broken collarbone. And he was the first player Clay mentioned afterward with five nice runs where he just seemed to know where the seam was going to be and when it was going to be open for him . . . Ykili Ross was singled out by Clay for his work at safety as well as C.J. Pollard, players USC wants to give a chance there with the move of Cook to nickel . . . another earning praise was redshirt freshman Matt Fink who threw a TD pass to balance out his INT . . . Clay said the goal for this offense will be to run 80 plays a game, indicating that they're having success on third downs to keep drives going, and to run the ball 40 times, throw it 40 times . . . Clay said bringing Pac-12 officials in for the scrimmage with the resulting penalties shows them where they have work to do although there really weren't that many penalties . . . Some injury updates: In yellow noncontact jerseys available for all but the actual scrimmage were Deontay Burnett and Daniel Imatorbhebhe . . . Out Saturday was running back Aca'Cedric Ware (sprained foot) and coming out in pads for the first time this spring, Dominic Davis (concussion protocol) and James Toland did not scrimmage . . . Overflow crowd on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields included more than 60 Trojan alum players that Helton says he's really encouraging to come back and be a part of the program . . . Players who came by to say "Hi" -- Keith Rivers and Matt Barkley, with his wife and two young sons . . . For more-play-by-play on practice, check out SATURDAY SPRING SCRIMMAGE 1 GHOST NOTES:

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

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