Breakout day for the young'uns

Something of a coming-out party for the young guns on offense -- from Matt Fink to Tyler Vaughns -- Tuesday as the emphasis for the rest of spring will be on getting the second team ready to go. Above, new running backs coach Deland McCullough at practice.

USC made an incredible run in 2016, winning nine games in a row including a thriller against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Now, according to Sports Betting Dime, USC 's resurgence gives them a likely spot in the playoffs next season. But many key components from last year's squad have moved on, including four veteran receivers. But the Trojans have the most important offensive piece returning and he is the main reason for all of the optimism. 

From the young guy trying to get up to speed throwing to veteran receivers last fall, Sam Darnold is now the veteran leader throwing to young guys as they work to catch up to him. 

But Tyler Vaughns and even redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Fink are not the only newcomers getting up to speed on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields this spring. There's also the new guy on the staff, running backs coach Deland McCullough, who was available to the media for the first time this spring after Tuesday's practice.

"There's no doubt," quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton says of Sam. He's in a far different place than he was in September. And the conversations between coach and pupil aren't as much about what he understands about what he's doing. "We don't have to," Tyson says.

It's more a case of "what do you want to do" in this situation or that, Tyson says. He knows Sam knows what to do "and he sees the entire field," so it's not a case of getting his focus . . . well . . . focused. No need to.

"Coach tells me to 'let the ball talk for me," Sam says like when he knew from before the snap in Saturday's scrimmage that redshirt freshman tailback Vavae Malepeai would be open on a quick circle route out of the backfield down the sideline. But by the time the ball sailed through Vavae's closing arms and right above his helmet, "he didn't quite get his head turned," Sam said.

"Vai's a smart guy," Sam said. "He'll get it turned the next time." Although there is another possibility. "I could throw it lower," Sam says, and drill it into the body or the helmet. It's just that he doesn't think he'll have to. The learning curve for the young guys is flattening out.

That's how Clay Helton saw it after Tuesday's competitive workout in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. "You're seeing that already with him [Sam] and Velus [Jones]," Clay said of the way that pair have been able to hook up the last three practices including another deep ball TD today.

"What I like is how Sam is playing against the defense," Clay said. Not locked into any one receiver and delivering the ball wherever it needs to go on the field.

"We'll only go as far as those [young] guys take us," Clay said. "That was the best practice of the spring, especially for the young wide receivers." He ticked off the names of Vaughns, Velus, Michael Pittman and Josh Imatorbhebhe for starters.

But on a day when Clay announced "the goal of this staff is to enhance our second group," that seemed to happen. And not just for the wide receivers. Fink had his best practice of his USC career, with a couple of strong TD strikes and a number of scrambles, one for 40 yards and a score.

But they weren't alone. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin was naming some of the young guys on the O-line that he's been pleased with on the day when Chris Brown and Roy Hemsley made the switch with Hemsley coming over to left guard and Brown taking Hemsley's right tackle spot in a predetermined move midway through spring to find the best mix-and-match combination.

"Frank Martin's doing a good job," Tee said of the redshirt freshman's switch to center with Nico Falah and Toa Lobendahn out. "And we really didn't expect [early entry freshman] Andrew Vorhees" to be this good.

McCullough amazed where he is

He's been an NFL player, a charter school principal, founded a high school football team and broken rushing records as a college player and Big Ten coach. Deland McCullough has been around.

But one place the lone new USC assistant coach never imagined he'd be, growing up in the tough steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, was at the University of Southern California. He'd only been to California once, when his Indiana team played in the Foster Farms Bowl.

And then he got the call. Out of the blue. He hadn't pursued the USC job when it opened when Tommie Robinson left for a big raise and promotion to LSU. But there was one thing he knew about USC: "It's a place where they have great running backs," Deland said.

And more than that. A fan of Charles White, he hasn't met him yet. But he says his older brother taught him the significance of someone like Sam "Bam" Cunningham, who made history at Alabama four years before Deland was born. "But I was too young to understand," he said. "And then I got to meet Sam [Saturday]. And I got a picture with him to send to my brother."

After the call and the trip out to USC for an interview and then midway through the day, "he blew us away," Clay says, and there was the offer of a job. "I'd had some near misses with a couple of NFL teams," Deland says, thanks to a series of four straight NFL players he'd recruited and coached up in his seven years at Indiana including one this year.

"I was excited," he says of the last place he could imagine going to. He has yet to see inside the Coliseum although he drove past it with his wife and kids.

And now that he's here, "it's been super, super first class. It's all good," Deland says. "I love it It's all good," -- including Roscoe's Chicken 'N Waffles.

"You can see his impact already," Clay says on a player like Ronald Jones. One way he's done that are the plastic pipes with the boxing glove on the end he uses to whack the ball as ball-carriers step over bags in different configurations on the ground. But there's a second one that took a couple of weeks to get together.

"It takes a special nozzle, he says to inflate footballs with water -- seven real pounds of water. Counting the time they have with them in calisthenics, Deland figures that's "12 to 13 minutes of ball security work" at each practice.


Clay went out of his way to note that incoming freshman Marlon Tuipulotu, running at nose tackle with the ones, is no rarity and that freshmen have often stepped up at USC. "In the eight years I've been here, we've had 15 freshman All-Americans," Clay said. "The best player is going to play." . . . Injury updates: No yellow noncontact jerseys to start for Deontay Burnett, who kept his off the entire practice, but Daniel Imatorbhebhe put his on for the team portion. Cam Smith out for the entire practice with a stiff neck. Ronald Jones in gear but missed with a sore toe from Saturday. Pie Young has a groin pull. Dominic Davis has been cleared for the basketball concussion he suffered but missed Tuesday to finish up some academic work and will be back Thursday and Saturday. "We need him out there," Clay said with a couple of injuries in the backfield. Aca'Cedric Ware (sprained foot) and Nico Falah (back) also missed. James Toland did return at running back. Reuben Peters got more work than we can remember at running back . . . Stepping in at Mike for Cam with the ones was Jordan Iosefa alongside John Houston at Will and Clay said there was not a dropoff . . . Another good crowd on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields . . . For more-play-by-play on practice, check out TUESDAY SPRING DAY 7 GHOST NOTES:

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

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